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Jim Kenyon: If they can’t move, they’re stuck in place

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/30/2021 9:59:24 PM
Modified: 1/30/2021 9:59:21 PM

Cardboard boxes filled with personal belongings were stacked nearly to the ceiling in the living room and kitchen of Steven Martel and Diane Williamson’s apartment in West Lebanon last week.

The couple told me they’ve been trying for months to move to a more affordable apartment in Claremont. Their landlord at Valley Garden Apartments on Seminary Hill won’t be sorry to see them go. On Jan. 8, for the second time in a year, the company slapped an eviction notice on Martel and Williamson’s front door for failure to pay rent.

So what’s holding up the move?

Martel and Williamson, who are married, can’t afford a moving company. The lowest estimate they received was for around $2,000.

To make matters worse, Martel’s 7-year-old car was recently repossessed. When I asked how he was making do, Martel just shrugged. “I’d rather have food on the table than pay for other things,” he said.

Martel, 34, was cooking dinner on the kitchen stove when I stopped by Wednesday evening. He wore a brace on his left wrist, which was injured hurt when a cable snapped at a manufacturing plant he was working at. The injury, along with back and foot problems that stem from his time in the Army, have added to the challenge of Martel finding work during the coronavirus pandemic, Williamson said.

Williamson, 53, suffers from a chronic kidney ailment that zaps her energy, limiting her work as a freelance writer. Her 70-year-old aunt, who has had multiple strokes, lives in the apartment as well.

Williamson and Martel have struggled to make their monthly $1,200 rent payment, which increases to $1,240 during the winter, for a while. After they could cover only about half of their rent in January 2020 and they missed the entire payment the following month, they received their first eviction notice.

Valley Garden Apartments, a collection of 32 units spread over four buildings that date back to the late 1960s, is owned by a limited liability company called Gros Ventre River. It’s part of Simpson Companies, a familiar name in Upper Valley construction and real estate development circles.

Earle Simpson started the family business more than 40 years ago, developing Sterling Springs in Hartford, Ivy Pointe in Hanover and a bunch of other residential communities along the way.

Gros Ventre (the name comes from a river in western Wyoming) purchased Valley Garden for $2.25 million in January 2019, according to Lebanon property records.

Less than a year after moving in, Martel and Williamson began falling behind in their rent. Before Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order that temporarily prevented landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, Gros Ventre initiated court proceedings against the couple last March.

In July, with the governor’s ban no longer in effect, the case went to Lebanon District Court, where Judge Michael Mace dismissed it. Gros Ventre had filled out the legal paperwork incorrectly and needed to refile the case, he said.

Even with the judge’s reprieve and a federal moratorium on evictions, Martel and Williamson recognized they were operating on borrowed time. The apartment in Claremont for $800 a month was more within their means, but its rent payments began immediately.

By last summer, the couple found themselves paying for an empty apartment in Claremont while falling further behind on their rent in West Lebanon.

In October, Williamson emailed the Simpson Companies’ facilities manager about her unsuccessful attempts to find a charitable organization to help with moving expenses. The company then offered to have its maintenance workers assist with the moving, providing it could be done on a weekday. (Earle Simpson shared the emails with me.)

But for reasons unclear to me, the details couldn’t get worked out. Martel and Williamson remain put.

The couple isn’t totally blameless for their predicament. In December, they missed a deadline to apply for federal assistance, available to people having trouble with rent payments during COVID-19.

Three weeks ago, Gros Ventre placed a second eviction notice on Martel and Williamson’s door, stating they now owed $15,541 in back rent.

A few days later, Williamson reached out to the Legal Advice and Referral Center, a nonprofit law firm in Concord that provides free legal services to low-income residents.

With Williamson’s permission, Steve McGilvary, a paralegal at the nonprofit, shared the couple’s story with me. They “lost income for most of 2020 due to the pandemic and lockdown,” he wrote in an email.

For McGilvary, who has spent 20 years helping low-income people sort out their landlord difficulties, Martel and Williamson’s case had a familiar ring.

“They have a resolution to their problem, but it usually requires the one thing they don’t have, and that’s money,” he said.

The good news is that Martel and Williamson don’t have to worry about being evicted anytime soon, he said. The federal moratorium runs through March 31. With no end to the pandemic in sight, McGilvary “wouldn’t be surprised” if it’s extended beyond spring.

But sooner or later, Martel and Williamson will have to move, and they’re going to need help.

Which brings me back to Simpson. Given the strain of the pandemic, what if his company paid for a professional mover?

“That would be the smartest resolution to the problem,” McGilvary said. “In the long run, the landlord would be saving money.”

On Friday, I brought up the idea to Simpson. I got the feeling that it had already crossed his mind. “It seems this could be the best outcome for everyone,” he said.

I agree. It’s time to move on.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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