Columbus woman tells her story of eviction threats due to late power bills
Many people at some point in their life have been a tenant, whether it was renting an apartment, townhouse or single family home. And for most, it's understood, and in the lease, that if you fall behind on rent there's a risk of eviction. But what about eviction for being behind on you power bill? WOSU spoke to one Columbus women who has had this happen to her.
Last month, as Tasha Nelson drove up to her apartment at Albany Club Condominiums on Stelzer Road she noticed a familiar piece of paper stuck to the front door. It was her third eviction notice in six months. It informed her she had three days to leave the premises. But Nelson was not being kicked out for falling behind on her rent; she was behind on her electric bill.
A five-year-old agreement between the property owner and an energy management company allows the eviction.
Nelson said she had no idea when she signed her lease in 2004 that she could be evicted if she fell behind on her electric bill. But she found out last October when she received her first eviction notice that it could happen.
"I was making payments. I was calling them to let them know what was going on with my situation. So it wasn't like they wasn't aware of what was going on," Nelson said.
Although Nelson gets a bill from a company called American Power and Light, it's not a utility company. And it's not regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. APL has a binding contract with the current landlord that allows eviction of tenants. By law, a regulated utility can only shut off someone's power for non-payment. It can not evict them.
In a panic, Nelson went to the Legal Aid of Columbus. The attorneys there were able to keep Nelson and her son in their home for the first eviction in October and the second one in February.
Nelson has had a hard time bringing her APL account current. One reason she said is because the company is tacking on court costs and attorneys fees from the eviction proceedings. So a $160 electric bill one month turns into a $630 bill the next. Nelson says APL will not post partial payments to her account.
"Until I get that balance paid off in full then that's how they go ahead with the notice to leave premises," Nelson said. On April 24, Nelson got her third eviction notice. This time her attorneys filed a law suit.
One of Nelson's attorneys, Emily Crabtree, said the Consumer Sales Practices Act requires APL to go through a collection process to get an outstanding debt.
"But what they've done instead is started filing evictions against people, and people will pay a lot of money when they want to keep their homes. And so they'll pay quicker, they don't have to go through the collection process which can be timely and costly," Crabtree said.
Crabtree also claims APL is violating the Tenant Act.
"Can Macy's, when you sign a contract with them to get a credit card, can Macy's decide to enter into a contract with your landlord that if you get behind on your payments that they can file suit in the landlord's name and evict you. It's a very similar situation," Crabtree said.
Ken Stoffer is a broker and property manager at Realty Executives Central. Stoffer said he has no control over the arrangement that was made between the original property owners and APL in 2003, long before Realty Executives became Albany Club landlords.
"It's the strangest thing I've ever heard of," he said.
Stoffer said the agreement has no benefit for Realty Executives Central.
"We're that little pebble between a rock and a hard place," he said.
Stoffer said the agreement requires them to send APL the leases of tenants who fall behind on their electric bills, giving APL permission to evict. And he said if they don't they'll be stuck with the bill.
Realty Executives Central is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. It claims Realty Executives should have told Nelson she could be evicted for non-payment of her power bill.
Stoffer said he's unsure whether it was his duty to inform her about the arrangement, but he said it certainly was not his intention to misinform her.
"All I was basing everything on was what we were told to do, you know, by American Power, what we were instructed when we took over management of the property," Stoffer said.
American Power and Light's general manager Bill Finissi said Nelson's lease states her utilities are part of the rent.
"They actually pay American Light for the light bill but the leases read that they are actually part of the rent and I'm sorry I don't have one in front of me because I'm not in the office, but that language is in the lease," Finissi said. "Do you think someone should be evicted for not paying a power bill? To be put out on the street if they're making their rent? I would have to see the lease in order to give you an opinion."
Nelson's lease actually reads she must maintain electric and water. It does not state the utilities are part of or are included in the rent.
Property manager Ken Stoffer confirmed the lease language.
"The only thing we collect from her is the rent," he said.
"Do you agree with what's going on? Well of course not. I feel like we're blameless. We're being caught up in something that first of all we're gaining no benefit from. We have no desire to see any of the tenants leave. I mean this is totally contradictory to what we're in business for," Stoffer replied.
Regardless who is to blame, Nelson said it is unfair, for her, and for those left after the three day notice.
"If I get evicted where am I going to go? And what does this say to my child about me as a person. I mean, they see me get up, they see me go to school, but what does that say? My mom works every day but we're about to get evicted," she said.
For the time being Nelson and her son remain in their apartment pending the outcome of the lawsuit.