Displaced residents in Plymouth search for answers, property manager projects return by holidays

Published 4:22 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

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By Clark Curtis, For Washington Daily News

Marcia Dawson, of Pine Forest Apartments in Plymouth, said she was devastated when she learned she was being forced out of her apartment that she had called home for the last 22 years. Dawson received a notification letter on April 25, which had been taped to the front door of her apartment. The notice indicated there were foundation issues that needed to be repaired to ensure the building is “maintained in a decent, safe and sanitary condition,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Daily News. Dawson had two options, to either temporarily relocate by May 15, which would assure her the opportunity to move back into her apartment.  Or by choosing not to relocate by May 15, her lease would be immediately terminated and she would have to be out of her apartment by June 15. At the time Dawson elected to be out by May 15. “It was all very threatening to me, knowing that I had such a short period of time to be out and no real options,” said Dawson, who currently rents two rooms from her parents along with her 13-year-old son. “I have missed a lot of work and had a lot of sleepless nights since this all started. I also did my best to help other residents, particularly the elderly, to understand exactly what was happening.” Dawson added she had continually complained about the condition of the floors for four or five years, as well as mold and holes in her bathtub, and nothing was ever done, she said.

With no other apartments available in town, or storage units within 30 miles of Plymouth, according to Dawson, she reached out to the property managers to see if they were going to assist with storage and moving costs, and the answer was no, she said. “My whole life is in storage now,” said Dawson. “It’s like readjusting to being homeless and unless you have been there you have no idea of what it is like.”

Dawson said she was the first to contact Legal Aid of North Carolina about the situation, as well as USDA Rural Development, which subsidizes the apartments, and Congressman Donald Davis’ office of the 1st Congressional District, seeking answers and help. She is also quick to point out that virtually everyone in the town of Plymouth was aware of what was happening at the apartments, from the foundation issues to the residents being forced to leave, as the matter had come before city council on more than one occasion. “It is so embarrassing that so many people and organizations in this town knew what was happening and nobody blinked an eye or came forward to help us,” said Dawson. “It has been a true reality check that something like this is happening in their backyard and they don’t seem to care. If you dumped 35 dogs out on the street it would be considered inhumane and unfair.”

Dawson has since decided she will not move back. “Why would I return to a place that could throw me out on the street like that,” said Dawson. 

Dawson is not alone in her daily struggles just to make ends meet, as an estimated 35 other residents received the same notification letter on April 25 and struggle every day just to survive and search for answers as to how and why this all had to happen. “The decision to temporarily displace the residents of Pine Forest Apartments was indeed a challenging one,” according to an emailed response from officials with GEM Management, LLC. “Our primary concern has always been the safety and well-being of our valued residents. After a thorough assessment of the buildings’ foundation, it became evident that immediate repair work was necessary to ensure the structural integrity of the apartments. We believed that relocating the residents during the foundation work was the safest option to mitigate any potential risks associated with continuing to reside in the building while the repairs were being carried out.”

A resident at Pine Forest for one year, Ebony Collins, is the mother of a one-year-old son, and gave birth to her second child, a baby girl, in August. She was perplexed by the letter that she received on April 25. “They have known about these issues for a long time and then all of the sudden they wanted us to move out because of the needed repairs,” said Collins. “My floor was bad when I moved in. They were really sinking and kept getting closer to the ground as time passed. And they never did any repairs.”

Collins said she, like the other residents, ended up having to fend for herself as the property managers offered no assistance for hotels, storage, or moving expenses. She is currently staying at her mothers’ two-bedroom apartment. “Everything is in storage at a cost of $79 per month, except for the essentials,” said Collins. “This has been an extreme hardship, stressful, and overwhelming. Right now I’m just living day by day. No one has stepped forward to help, which is shameful for your own town.” Collins moved out by May 15, with the hope of moving back once the foundation work was finally completed.

It was not quite a year after moving to Pine Forest that Phyllis Moore received the note from the property managers. She elected to be out by May 15, with the intent of moving back into her same apartment, once the repairs to the foundation were completed. “I knew when I said I would be out by May 15, I would not be coming back,” said Moore, who is also recovering from a broken neck, three back surgeries, blindness in one eye, and now high blood pressure due to the stress of all of this “The foundation in my apartment was about to cave in. If you stepped in the right place your foot might sink all the way to the ground. There was no way they were going to get that fixed in 60 days. I also had huge spiders in my bedroom and I was afraid to sleep in there.”

Moore said the closest storage area she could find was 40 miles away and being on a fixed income, she had to take out a loan just to pay someone to help her move what she could. “I still can’t believe how much I had to throw out. Things like my computer, my living room and dining room sets, and a lot of my clothes, which included brand new shoes. I’m a shoe lady and setting them out for someone to take made me cry. These were all things that meant a lot to me.” 

Moore is currently living with her daughter and sleeping on pallets on the floor. Despite the hardship, she feels much more fortunate than some of the others. “I thank God, that I, at least had a place to go, ” said Moore. “I know of others who put their couches outside and slept on them at night. It was the worst thing I have ever seen. They threw us all out like dogs. Do that on the highway and you would be fined. We are human beings and nothing was done.”

Shirley Coopers’ daughter, Tyiesha Watkins, had been living at the apartments for over six years. As Cooper told us, Tyiesha suffers from multiple physical and mental problems. She said her daughter has trouble walking, has been diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia, and is on numerous medications. Cooper said her daughters’ unit was similar to the others in that there were foundation issues that the management was aware of long before the letter and nothing had been done. She said they did inform management of their intent to be out by May 15 so Tyiesah could return to her apartment, which gave them only two weeks to be out. Forced to leave, Cooper reached out to the management to see if it would assist with storage and moving costs, and the answer again was no, she said. “They didn’t even have the common decency to provide my daughter and the rest of these folks with any kind of support for storage or moving expenses,” said Cooper. “I went to all of the local hotels to see how much it would cost to put us up for a month, shared that with the property manager, and the answer was still no. You just don’t throw people out on the street like that. It is totally unacceptable. And no one has come forward to give us a hand.”

Cooper said faced with the reality of not having enough money to pay for storage, and that there wasn’t anything available in Plymouth, Washington, or Edenton, they were given no choice but to get rid of most of Tyieshas’ belongings. “We literally threw everything out behind the apartments,” said Cooper. “The only things we kept were her clothing and that was it.”

Cooper said Tyiesha is currently living with her, as they try to find her some sort of permanent housing, as the 60-day estimate for the original work to be completed has long passed. Cooper has been searching long and hard to find a place for her daughter. But said all she has been able to accomplish is to get her on waiting lists. “I’ve dried my tears already,” said Cooper. “I’m no longer going to keep stressing myself out and end up in the grave because others don’t have any consideration for the poor. That is too much for me. If I end up gone, who is going to take care of my daughter?”

Frances Wallace is currently living with her parents as she navigates her way through all of this. She also moved out by May 15, as she wanted to return to her own apartment. That of course, according to Wallace, has all changed now that none of the repairs have been made or even started at the complex. “I told the management that my kitchen floor was sinking and the hallway floor was leaning to one side and nothing was done,” said Wallace. “I also had mold issues that went unaddressed, so I went out and bought some bleach and cleaned it up the best I could.”

With only two weeks to move out, Wallace also approached management to see if they were going to help with storage costs or relocation efforts. “They told me no,” said Wallace. “Absolutely no one in this town has come forward to help us. I’m on a fixed income and it has been a struggle. I’m feeling very depressed right now and I can’t seem to focus or get myself together.”

As time slowly drags on for Wallace and the others, she said she can’t stay at her parents forever, where she is also keeping her granddaughter. “These people put us out just like dogs,” said Wallace. “The only difference is that the dogs have a shelter where they can go. I’m one of the fortunate ones as I could stay with my parents for the time being. But what are the other folks doing that had no place to go?”

Phyllis Moores’ 70-year-old cousin, Mary Johnson, had resided at Pine Forest since August of 2022. She said there were ongoing issues when she first moved in that were never addressed. “The floors in the dining and kitchen area were slanting badly,” Johnson said. “Everything was smooth and then all of a sudden it was like you started walking down some stairs. The floor was so weak in one area of the dining room, that I placed the table over it to prevent anyone from possibly getting hurt if it caved in. When it rained, the water would come in under the back door into the kitchen. I told management about all of this, they said they would come and look at it, but no one ever came.”

At the time Johnson received the letter, she felt they were going to keep their word and do the work they said they were going to do and decided she would move out by May 15. She said she then asked the management if they were going to help them in any way with temporary lodging, storage, or moving expenses, and she said they told her no. “They knew we had to go and they should have put us up somewhere,” said Johnson. “They didn’t even offer us one brown penny to help us move. Not one penny, not even a bottle of water.”

Left with few options, she began the process of moving out as she felt as if everything was blowing up in her face. “It is tough when you are on a fixed income and you have spent all of your money and are faced with having to move and no U-Haul to move it, no place to store your things, and nobody to help you,” said Johnson. “What you do pay for, you put on a credit card and then have to explain to people when they call, why the payments are late.”

Johnson was finally able to get all of her things moved out and into storage. But the one thing she hadn’t found was a place to live. And though not proud of it, she had to resort to some extreme measures. For several weeks she said she used to sneak back into her empty apartment at night to sleep on the floor. She would wait until the office manager left at the end of the day and made sure to be out before she arrived in the morning, never turning on the lights. “I would lie there on the floor many nights asking the Lord, “why we got to go through this, and why are they treating us like this”,” she said while wrought with emotion and unable to hold back the tears. “There were many nights I laid there on the floor crying and talking to the Lord, because I just couldn’t understand why.” After being reported to management by one of her neighbors, Johnson has since found a small trailer that she now calls home.

Johnson, as the other residents, continues to take life one day at a time, with the hope that someone will come forward to help them.

“It really hurt me that I had to go through all of this at my age,” said Johnson. “I have never gone through anything like this in my life. If you got 50 dogs and turn them loose, what happens? You go to jail because you abandoned them. These people abandoned us. Nobody could pay me enough, even if they told me it was going to be free, to move back there. I will not risk my life going back through what I had to go through. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and this ain’t right.”

Those displaced and evicted residents that we have spoken with have lost track of many of their neighbors since this all began back in April. According to them, their whereabouts and well-being at this time are unknown.

“We understand the inconvenience and disruption this may have caused to our residents, especially during a time when the comfort of ones’ own home is essential,” according to the response from GEM Management, LLC. “We have been working diligently to expedite the foundation work, and we are currently projecting that the apartments will be completed and residents will be able to return to their homes prior to the holidays. Our goal is to ensure that everyone can enjoy a safe and comfortable living environment as soon as possible.”

As of October 31, according to Allen Pittman, director of planning and inspection in Plymouth, no permits have been pulled for any of the planned foundation work at the apartments.