Florence Virtue renter Gail Stokes: “Something’s not right.” LAURA GLESBY PHOTO

When Gail Stokes opened her Dixwell apartment’s front door, she didn’t expect a court marshal who had come to deliver an eviction notice. ​“I stood at the door and just started shaking,” she said.

The 73-year-old tenant held the notice. Sat down. Turned on the oxygen tank that helps her breathe. And called the property manager — who explained to her that she owed 50 cents.

“My blood pressure went through the roof,” recalled Stokes. 

Stokes has rented her single-story Dixwell townhouse — part of the Florence Virtue apartment complex on New Haven’s Charles Street — with her dog Callie for over eight years.

The court marshal handed her that half-dollar eviction notice on March 16.

One week later — after calling local advocates and receiving a 50-cent money order from a mystery benefactor  — Stokes received a letter stating that the eviction notice was ​“revoked and of no consequence or effect.”

The property management company — The Richman Group, which according to its website is the nation’s seventh-largest housing owner — would later claim that the original eviction notice was an ​“error.”

Stokes thinks it was payback.

Back in February, Stokes said, she filed a complaint with the Livable City Initiative’s (LCI) housing code enforcement unit about a mouse problem that had plagued her apartment since November. (City spokesperson Lenny Speiller said that LCI could not find records of the complaint.) Stokes figured that the eviction notice was retaliation for the complaint, which never resulted in an inspection. The Richman employee with whom she’s been in contact ​“has been a little annoyed with me since I made a stink about the mice,” she said. 

“It is against our policy to retaliate for any reason,” according to a statement provided to the Independent by LinnelTaylor Marketing, a PR firm speaking on behalf of Florence Virtue’s property manager. The 129-unit complex was founded as a mixed-income co-op in the 1960s, but now, The Richman Group is both a co-owner and the property management company in charge of interactions with tenants like Stokes.

Although the eviction attempt was ultimately rescinded and never made its way into a formal court case, Stokes said she no longer feels comfortable speaking to Florence Virtue property management staff. The incident revealed that her landlord could try to kick her out at any moment. Had the case been filed in court before the notice was rescinded, it would have marked her with a publicly available eviction record for at least a year, even if she prevailed in the case.

Stokes asked a granddaughter to deliver rent this month on her behalf so she wouldn’t have to go to the office. ​“I still feel very uneasy that the situation even occurred,” she said.

Tenant: “I was totally flabbergasted.”

Legal aid’s Shelley White: Eviction notices can spark panic. New Haven Independent

Sitting on her sofa with the eviction note in hand, Stokes thought to herself, ​“Something’s not right.”

The eviction notice had no specific amount of money listed, simply stating that the eviction was prompted by ​“non-payment of rent.” Stokes, who pays for her apartment with the help of a Section 8 housing choice voucher, couldn’t recall being late on her portion of the rent. 

The notice went on to say, ​“Any payments tendered after service of the notice to quit will be accepted for reimbursement of costs and for use and occupancy only, and not for rent, with full reservation of rights to continue with the eviction action.”

Stokes called a Richman employee in charge of the complex, who she said informed her that the notice pertained to a 50-cent debt from either 2019 or 2021 — the employee wasn’t sure when, according to Stokes.

“I was just totally flabbergasted with her response,” Stokes said. ​“This is harassment.”

“I could have paid the 50 cents myself,” she added, ​“but it’s the principle.” 

Stokes found herself panicking — a common reaction among tenants who receive an eviction notice, also called a ​“notice to quit.”

According to Shelley White, the director of litigation at New Haven’s legal aid, ​“Any time the landlord serves the tenant with paperwork, not only is it terrifying because it looks like you’re gonna have to move … Instantly they’ll start to worry, did the check bounce? Did something happen? Are they confusing me with someone else?”

By coincidence, Stokes received a visitor that afternoon who would help resolve the issue.

Benefactor revealed

Stokes had first met her alder, Troy Streater, the newly-elected representative of Ward 21, when he knocked on her door with campaign materials. Now that he had officially taken office, Stokes had reached out to Streater days prior about a separate issue — and he knocked again on Stokes’ door on March 16, moments after she received the notice to quit.

“Alderman Streater, you’re not gonna believe it,” Stokes remembered explaining to Streater, showing him the notice. ​“It’s about 50 cents.”

Streater decided to go to the apartment complex’s property management office in person. ​“A [73]-year-old lady, there’s no issues, you’re gonna have a sheriff serve her?” he recalled thinking. ​“She’s on oxygen.” He called the eviction notice ​“ridiculous.”

He said he learned from the office that the property manager was planning to charge Stokes a $94 sheriff’s fee in addition to the 50 cents — a common practice in eviction cases. (The Richman Group did not respond to this allegation.) 

“I don’t think anybody realizes how expensive an eviction action is,” said White. Between the marshal’s fee, a $177 court fee, and the cost of the notice to quit itself, ​“the figures can be as high as close to $300 just for the privilege of having an eviction filed against you,” White said.

When he heard about the court fee from Huckaby, ​“I told her to reconsider,” Streater said. ​“How would it look?” He was ultimately able to talk her down.

By March 21, Streater returned to the office with a money order for 50 cents. The one-dollar fee to procure the money order was more costly than the value itself. He never told Stokes that he paid the half-dollar debt; only that she didn’t have to worry about the situation.

Two days later, Stokes received a letter from The Richman Group’s lawyer indicating that the eviction notice was canceled: ​“This letter is to advise you that the Notice to Quit served upon Gail Stokes, and dated March 16 2023, is hereby revoked and of no consequence or effect. You are hereby reinstated as a tenant under the terms and conditions of your prior lease.”

Property manager: Just a mistake

The eviction notice and subsequent letter canceling the notice.

Luckily for Stokes, the property manager hadn’t yet filed the eviction case in housing court. If the case had been filed, said White, ​“the consequences would have been even greater.” An eviction case would have been associated with her name for at least a year, regardless of the outcome or the cause, allowing landlords to screen her out as a potential tenant. ​“I cannot tell you how much horror eviction records cause tenants,” White said. ​“It doesn’t matter if it was for 50 cents.”

Both the eviction notice and the letter that later rescinded the notice were signed by Robert Chesson, a partner of the Landlord Law Firm — a Milford-based law firm whose website features this slogan: ​“Get the rent — or get them out.”

The law firm’s stated mission is ​“to uphold and improve the laws that protect Connecticut landlords while finding ways to make landlording more rewarding and profitable.”

In their statement to the Independent, Florence Virtue’s property managers wrote that the eviction notice was a mistake. ​“We share our resident’s concern and frustration regarding the notice to quit she mistakenly received. Our unpaid balances are all sent at one time to our eviction attorney who then processes the notices to quit. This small of amount would not typically be something sent for processing.” 

The statement continued, ​“Once the error was brought to our attention, the onsite team and eviction attorney worked quickly to rescind the notice to quit and remove it from the record.”

The PR firm representing the landlord did not respond when asked whether Stokes would have been charged the marshal’s fee and why it took a week to notify Stokes that the eviction notice was canceled, which occurred only after her alder paid the outstanding 50 cents.

Resettling from rodents?

Over the past eight years, four generations have roamed in and out of Stokes’ townhouse. Stokes lives within blocks of her daughter and two nieces. Her grandson helped assemble the furniture in her apartment at age 14. Her great-grandchildren stayed with her in the early months of COVID. ​“The family’s always around,” she said.

Stokes grew up in Elm Haven, a public housing complex that once stood on Ashmun Street before the city tore it down. ​“I was raised in this neighborhood,” she said. She loves the rhythm of Charles Street. She keeps a plastic chair outside, beside her front door, where she sits every warm day to watch the children play and learn to ride bikes. 

Callie, a dog who loves the outdoors but is not a fan of grass, begs Stokes to take her to the sidewalk each morning rather than the backyard. On her leash, she barks at ​“everything that goes up and down this street. … Oh, she loves it,” said Stokes.

Stokes keeps her home pristine — surfaces shiny, every turquoise pillow in its place — with the help of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who come over to help her clean at least once a week. 

One day this past winter, when Stokes brought home groceries from Stop & Shop, she said she discovered a ​“tunnel through a whole loaf of bread” still in its plastic packaging. She exchanged the loaf for a new one, thinking there had been something wrong with the bread — until the next day, she discovered another tunnel, and realized the hole was from a mouse.

She first discovered the mice in November, two weeks into her recovery from open heart surgery. Stokes’ grandson arrived to assist with chores and found enough mouse feces on one of her kitchen shelves to fill a dustpan, Stokes said.

Stokes and her family members deep-cleaned the house and found droppings in all of the closets. 

Since then, Stokes started washing her counters with bleach every week. ​“I’m a fanatic about trash being out,” she said.

Florence Virtue has sent sent exterminators about once a month, according to Stokes. She said their methods haven’t been effective so far. She worried that mice could inflame the COPD that requires her to use oxygen tanks. 

Plus, she said, ​“I can’t do bugs. I’m petrified of the mice.” Once, she found a wriggling mouse on a mouse trap and ran outside, asking a stranger to help her dispose of it. The unknown person came inside and discarded the struggling rodent. When she relayed the story to family members, ​“my daughter was so mad,” Stokes recalled with a laugh.

Stokes isn’t the kind of person to wait for a problem to solve itself. After a few months of extermination seemed to be failing, she said, she called LCI. The day of the scheduled LCI inspection in February, she said, Florence Virtue sent another exterminator.

While she loves her home, and her block, Stokes is thinking of leaving. She’s so far applied to apartments in the Dwight neighborhood and in Hamden. ​“I wanted to, but I didn’t want to,” she said of the applications. But she’s tired of the rodents. ​“There’s gotta be a break for me somewhere.”

This story was first published April 12, 2023 by the New Haven Independent.