Editors note: This is the first of a two-day series. Click here for the second part.
KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Robert Finnegan likes the two-bedroom apartment near Dobyns-Bennett High School where he’s lived the past 12 years, much of it with his beloved cats Stinky and Monster.
“I sit out there in the back all the time, it’s actually one of my favorite pastimes,” the 59-year-old disabled Army veteran said. “There’s usually like two families of squirrels every year, little baby squirrels, and it’s fun to watch.”
But Finnegan, who told News Channel 11 he’d hoped to spend the rest of his life at the apartment on Waverly Road, has to be out by Oct. 1. He said he’s never been late on a rent payment or done anything else to damage his record as a tenant.
Last September, a New York-based company called Kingsport Portfolio LLC bought Finnegan’s 36-unit complex along with two adjacent ones — a total of 106 apartments — from longtime owner Bob Monday. Finnegan and his roommate hadn’t had a rent increase for years and were paying $500 a month.
The property deed shows the company paid $5.4 million for the three properties, plus two smaller ones that include a motel. Kingsport Portfolio changed the complex’s name from “The Gardens” to “Legacy Apartments” and began renovating some units.
On July 26, Finnegan and some neighbors received official notices saying they had 60 days to move. In bold print, the short letter explained a “transfer option” to a “fully remodeled apartment, subject to application approval.”
Finnegan’s apartment type, after remodeling, will rent for $1,100, which is a 120% increase. He makes less than $1,000 a month from disability. He said he couldn’t afford that rent, even split two ways, and doubts his income would qualify him anyway.
“I am truly a responsible person and so are a lot of other people that live here,” Finnegan said. “They include working families with children, some of whom have told him they’re having to move in with family members.”
Finnegan doesn’t have that option.
“I have no one helping me pack, no one helping me move,” Finnegan said.
“I’ve been here 12 years, there are others who’ve been here longer. They’re not taking into account our record here, we’re being treated as totally new tenants like if we just came off the street and applied.”
News Channel 11 spoke to the manager of the apartment complex Tuesday morning saying we had questions about the change. She took information and said someone would get back to us “as soon as possible.” There had been no response as of 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Whether ‘there ought to be a law’; there isn’t one
Finnegan, who hasn’t been able to find an affordable apartment and is afraid of becoming homeless for the first time in his life, contacted Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) about his situation. In the body of an Aug. 7 email to Finnegan with an attached eviction advice letter, staff attorney Jack Inman wrote that “Unfortunately, there is little that we can do.”
In fact, Inman’s letter notes, the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which applies in Sullivan County, allows landlords to evict someone on a month-to-month agreement in just 30 days.
Inman told News Channel 11 Tuesday that relatively speaking, management’s time allowance is generous compared to what LAET often sees.
“Most landlords, 30 days is all you’re going to get,” he said.
Inman said that doesn’t mean he likes the way Tennessee’s law is written. He said like many states surrounding it, the Volunteer State is “more landlord-friendly” in its laws.
“It’s clear it’s unethical what they’re doing by many people’s standards, but if it’s legal, we have to operate within the bounds of the law as it’s currently written whether we like that law or not,” Inman said.
He still encourages people in situations like Finnegan’s to contact LAET — and he is seeing more of them in the Tri-Cities right now than LAET has in the past due to the hot housing market. He said sometimes landlords don’t follow proper procedure.
“So they’re doing things that are illegal, they’re not giving proper notice — in those situations, we can help a lot. Sometimes we can get the case dismissed.”
‘Where should I go?’
Finnegan welcomed News Channel 11 into his apartment, which is devoid of wall art as he packs boxes. The man who served his country, got a degree on the GI bill and worked in programming until heart trouble disabled him is worried about his future.
The Chicago native, who’s also lived in New York state, said he was disappointed to learn about the minimal protections he had after 12 years of faithfully paying his rent.
“If he was looking for a nice development … to do what he is doing, why wouldn’t he do it in New York,” Finnegan said of Kingsport Portfolio, LLC, whose principal and mailing addresses are in Spring Valley, N.Y.
“Why did he come all the way to Tennessee to do it? The reason why is because he knows that he can because tenants here have zero rights. We basically accept what they do and we have to gracefully bow out.”
Finnegan said he still doesn’t know where he will go come October. He’s been checking for apartments every day.
“It’s either too high in price, something that I can’t handle or it’s taken,” Finnegan said, adding that the most he could manage to pay as his share of rent would be about $450. He’s checked into assisted housing but said the Section 8 waiting list is months or even years long.
“I have no place to [go], and the thing is, if I am on the streets I will literally die,” he said, pointing to five heart attacks, bypass surgery and a pacemaker. “I’m not trying to be dramatic or anything, it’s just that I have always had a home. I am not used to being on the streets.”
Inman said he hears the difficult questions more and more often and can only encourage people to check with the housing authority, churches and any other organizations that might offer help.
“These tenants, they just ask me, ‘Where should I go? I don’t want to be homeless and it looks like that’s the only option for me.’ And unfortunately, we don’t have a good answer in many cases.”
On Wednesday: Robert Finnegan’s not alone. Inman and the director of Family Promise say the trajectory of unaffordability is on the rise.