Jim Kenyon: Northern Stage buys apartments, directs tenants to exit

  • Debbie Farnsworth loads her car while moving out of her White River Junction, Vt., apartment of 14 years Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Farnsworth was told by Northern Stage, the building's owner, that she would need to leave so the theater company could house its employees in the four apartments. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

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    "I used to sit on this porch as a teenager," said Ross Dwyer, right, on Wednesday, April 15, 2021, who, along with Sandra Madore, left, received letters in January with a "notice to vacate" their separate apartments from Northern Stage, which owns the building on Gates Street in White River Junction, Vt. In his youth, Dwyer visited friends who lived there when it was a single family home, and he has lived in his apartment there for seven years. Madore has lived in hers for over two years. The theater company bought the building in 2020 to house theater workers. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • 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: 4/17/2021 9:34:49 PM
Modified: 4/18/2021 6:08:35 PM

On Wednesday, Debbie Farnsworth carried a cardboard box filled with house plants to her Honda subcompact parked outside the downtown White River Junction apartment where she lived for 14 years.

With help from family, the 60-year-old Farnsworth, who works in the kitchen at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, had already loaded most of her belongings — furniture, kitchen utensils and a barbecue grill — into her son’s pickup.

“At my age, I really don’t want to move, but I have no choice,” Farnsworth told me. “Today is my last day.”

The two-story apartment house — once a single-family dwelling — was sold on April 1. The new owner’s plans for the building on Gates Street didn’t include Farnsworth.

She hoped to find another apartment in her price range, or maybe a home to buy. But the Upper Valley’s affordable housing market, where the pickings were already slim, has grown even tighter due to the coronavirus pandemic. In these uncertain times, people are staying put.

Staring at a mid-April deadline to vacate or risk losing the entire $820 in rent she had paid to the building’s new owner at the beginning of the month, Farnsworth moved in with her daughter last week.

“It’s not what I wanted to do,” she said. “It’s degrading. But where am I going to go? I guess I could live in my car.”

What landlord would force an older woman living on her own to relinquish her longtime apartment during a global pandemic?

Try her neighbor: Northern Stage.

I know it sounds out of character for the professional theater company that has been a mainstay in downtown White River Junction for decades to be playing the bad guy.

But I can’t put it any other way.

Northern Stage’s acquisition of 178 Gates St., where Farnsworth lived, came after it purchased another house with six apartments on the same street last year. Northern Stage paid a total of $625,000 for the two properties. In 2018, it bought the old Twin State Typewriter building, which has five upstairs apartments, for $385,000.

“Housing is a huge and often invisible part of our business model,” Northern Stage Managing Director Irene Green wrote me in an email Thursday. “In non-COVID conditions, we invest substantial human and financial capital each year housing seasonal staff and visiting artists.”

In other words, Northern Stage wants the building for their own staff and offstage employees.

Northern Stage’s business model wasn’t lost on Farnsworth. “They kicked me to the curb so their people could move in,” she said.

Farnsworth, who had gone years without a written lease, learned a while back from her original landlord that he was selling the building. She had until March 31 to move out.

With her landlord acting as intermediary, Farnsworth asked Northern Stage if she could stay into April. Northern Stage agreed, providing she pay her full April rent with the caveat that she’d get all but $250 refunded if she was out by the middle of the month.

What Farnsworth didn’t know — and Northern Stage apparently didn’t explain to her — was that during the coronavirus pandemic, tenants can’t be forced to move.

In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott’s State of Emergency order, which includes a moratorium on evictions, has been in effect since last year. Under Scott’s order and a subsequent piece of legislation, the earliest a tenant can be required to move — unless they’ve damaged a property or engaged in criminal behavior — is currently June 15.

In our conversations last week, Northern Stage officials argued that they didn’t evict Farnsworth. “We are trying to move our business forward and emerge from COVID — but never at the expense of our neighbors or tenants,” Green wrote in the email. “We have been communicative, supportive and flexible in working with each tenant that we inherited.”

Considering Farnsworth wasn’t the only tenant that Northern Stage took steps to boot, I’m not sure its good-neighbor claim holds up.

On Jan. 29, Green sent letters to two older tenants in the building that Northern Stage bought last year. Green gave them 90 days to “surrender possession of the premises located at 146 Gates St. to Northern Stage.”

The letter went on to say that “failure to vacate the premises by April 30, 2021 may result in legal actions against you to recover possession of the premises.” The two tenants were also warned that if they missed the deadline, they could be on the hook for Northern Stage’s “attorneys’ fees and costs associated with any unlawful detention of the premises.”

Ross Dwyer, a 68-year-old retired Dartmouth College maintenance worker, has lived in the building for seven years, most of the time without a written lease. The one-bedroom apartment’s kitchen appliances could use updating, but the rent — $850 a month — is affordable, and the location can’t be beat. Two grocery stores, a pizza shop and a place to shoot pool are within walking distance.

“That’s why I grabbed this place,” he told me.

Dwyer’s first-floor neighbor, 72-year-old Sandra Madore, also received a letter from Green on Jan. 29 that gave her until the end of this month to leave — the same day that her one-year lease with Northern Stage expires.

Madore’s younger sister, Debra Kemp, lives in a one-bedroom apartment at the other end of downtown White River Junction. Kemp told me that her sister suffers from a mental disability, stemming from a bout with spinal meningitis as a child. A social worker helps Madore, who doesn’t drive, with grocery shopping and laundry.

After seeing Northern Stage’s letter to her sister, Kemp contacted Vermont Legal Aid’s Elder Law Project in Springfield, Vt., In a March 16 letter to Madore, a Legal Aid attorney informed her that she was “not at risk of eviction” under the governor’s State of Emergency order.

Still, the thought of having to move has “stressed out” her sister, Kemp told me. “She’s afraid that she’s going to be thrown out on the street.”

Green and David Grant, who chairs Northern Stage’s board of directors, assured me that won’t happen. (Now that Farnsworth is gone, Madore and Dwyer are the last remaining tenants not affiliated with the theater in its 10 apartments on Gates Street.)

“If Northern Stage dropped the ball, we will pick it up and be sure to meet a moral as well as a legal standard in our conduct,” Grant wrote in an email on Friday.

In the last paragraph of her letter to Madore and Dwyer, Green stated that if moving was causing them “undue hardship,” Northern Stage would do its “best to accommodate (their) needs through this transition.”

I guess that’s intended to be comforting. But I wish that Northern Stage had been more upfront. Green’s letter could have spelled out the tenants’ right to stay put during the pandemic.

Under the state’s current eviction moratorium, there’s “no legal way” for Northern Stage to force out tenants who haven’t broken any laws or damaged property, Vermont Housing and Community Development Commissioner Josh Hanford told me.

That’s good news for Madore and Dwyer, at least for the next couple months. Unfortunately, it’s too late for Farnsworth.

And around the same time that Vermont’s current eviction moratorium is scheduled to run out in June, Northern Stage plans to resume live performances.

The show must go on.

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

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