About a dozen residents of the Equinox and Solstice low-income housing complexes were threatened with eviction this week after receiving notices of outstanding rent charges minutes before property management offices closed.
All the residents said they’d paid their rent that month.
The buildings on Liberty Lane at the corner of Russell Street, and West Broadway, are owned by Homeword, a Missoula affordable housing developer, and managed by Tamarack Property Management Co. of Billings.
The residents said they received the nearly identical notices Monday at around 2:55 p.m., before the Tamarack office’s closing time of 3 p.m. Only the names, addresses and outstanding rent charges differed. The notices gave them three days to pay, or face eviction by the end of the month.
Mel Zielke, 66, lives in Equinox. A few minutes before 3 p.m., he saw a paper slide under his door and rushed to talk to the deliverer, because he wanted to thank the Tamarack employee for refilling the dog-poop bag dispensers outside the apartment building, which had been empty for quite awhile. Then he looked at the notice.
“I ran down there and didn’t put shoes on, 'cause I knew it was close to 3,” Zielke said.
Zielke acknowledged that he was angry at the time, but said he tried to be polite, asking why he received the notice. He was asked to pay $145 in outstanding rent charges, an amount that didn’t match his usual monthly rent.
He said the office manager, Latoya Guzman, told him usually an appointment is required, but she’d make an exception. Zielke replied, no, he’d follow the rules and make an appointment. He then said Guzman told him she’d call the police if he showed up to an appointment in his current state.
When contacted by telephone, Guzman declined to comment.
Gregg Barsi’s notice wasn’t slid under the door.
He was showering, with help from his two caregivers, and couldn’t get any hot water. He called Tamarack after drying off and soon an employee came by – to check the water, Barsi thought.
But he said the employee handed one of his caregivers the pay-or-quit form, claiming he owed $358. His monthly payment is $640.
“They keep calling us their ‘valued residents,’ but I honestly don’t believe they care about anybody,” he said.
“I’m just really upset and discouraged.”
Jeryl Schneider, Tamarack Property Management vice president, said the pay-or-quit notices could be for a “wide variety” of balances, from unpaid rent to damages spanning the past several months, when Tamarack was without an office manager in Missoula.
The terms of Tamarack’s agreement give them the right to charge for unpaid balances anytime after the 5th of each month, Schneider said.
Tamarack issues notices for past-due payment without working to determine the cause of the balance beforehand, Schneider said, standard rental agency policy. She added that the Missoula Housing Authority, which serves many of the Solstice and Equinox residents, often changes information for certain residents, showing a discrepancy in Tamarack’s system.
“If we find out the balance was in error, we retract the pay-and-quit notice and amend the balance,” she said.
In one case from October, Schneider said a tenant received a notice to pay a full month’s rent. The office found the payment was applied to a different resident’s account and rectified the charge.
She said any resident who felt he or she had a faulty balance could make an appointment, or call her office and Tamarack would take care of the situation.
Missoula Housing Authority Executive Director Lori Davidson said each of their tenants pays around 30 percent of their income toward rent and the housing authority covers the rest through direct deposit the last day of each month. Tenants pay their portion directly to the property management company.
Tenant payments can be readjusted because of a new job or child, but communicating that change to property management companies can sometimes take a while.
Jim McGrath, admissions and occupancy manager for the Missoula Housing Authority, said most of the property management companies and landlords he works with are aware of the fact that rents are readjusted, with a tenant paying more or less than before. Those readjustments are sometimes delayed, though the housing authority tries to send that information in with their regular payment.
He has experienced some larger property management companies with automated systems sending out notices to pay without a person looking at why the balance is due, but doesn’t know if that’s what happened at Equinox and Solstice on Monday.
“We haven’t heard anything from Tamarack about payments,” he said.
Terale New, who’s lived in Solstice for about six months, said her notice was for $651, a full monthly rent payment, although she and her boyfriend, David Long, pay $310 per month, per an agreement with the Missoula Housing Authority.
“I make sure my rent’s paid, first and foremost,” Long said.
New also headed down to the office Monday afternoon, but sent the notice and her rent receipt to her housing authority case manager after making an appointment with Tamarack for Tuesday afternoon.
Homeword Executive Director Andrea Davis said Tamarack has been “very proactive” and noted Schneider had already followed up with her over the residential outcry Monday and Tuesday.
Although the language can be alarming to some residents, Davis said passing out pay-or-quit notices is routine procedure.
Homeword replaced the Missoula Housing Authority with Tamarack Property Management in January 2015. Tamarack has had five office managers in Missoula since that time, Tiffany Klar, Equinox resident said.
Gathered between the two buildings at wooden benches split by two ashtrays, residents smoked and gossiped about the notices Tuesday morning.
Klar, who works at Missoula Fresh Market on Reserve Street, has lived in the building for two years. She does not receive assistance from the Missoula Housing Authority.
Her notice had a balance of $201 due, when she pays $425 in rent. She had a receipt for $425 paid on Aug. 3, within the five days Tamarack gives to turn in rent at the beginning of the month.
“If (Guzman) cannot track back that we paid our rent, where did our money go?” she asked, adding she trusted the main Tamarack office, “but not these buffoons."
"We all have proof we paid our rent,” she said.