Saturday, August 10, 2002

Tenants have new lawyer, want to cancel agreement to move

By Marie McCain,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Huntington Meadows tenants who fought to keep their Bond Hill apartment complex from closing contend their former attorney agreed to close the apartments without their permission.

        In a motion filed Friday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court by their new attorney, Kenneth Lawson, tenants Juanita Mitchell and Patricia Wilson say they want the settlement agreement thrown out.

        They are asking Judge Thomas Crush to hold an evidentiary hearing to decide whether Huntington Meadows should be closed.

        Gary Pieples, the Legal Aid Society attorney represented Mrs. Mitchell and Ms. Wilson and other Huntington Meadows tenants, denied ignoring his clients' wishes.

        “They gave us authority to sign this agreed entry. They gave us authority at that time,” he said Friday, declining additional comment.

        Residents have been given until Sept. 3 to vacate the complex.

        Maryland-based Habitat America, which took over the complex after the limited partnership that owned it declared bankruptcy, is shutting the property because it says it doesn't collect enough rent to pay for upkeep or the removal of health hazards such as asbestos and mold.

        On July 26, an evidentiary hearing was scheduled before Hamilton County Common Pleas Magistrate Richard Bernat to determine whether Habitat America would be allowed to close the property, where more than 650 families lived.

        But instead of the expected hearing, attorneys for all sides went behind closed doors and talked for more than two hours, despite the presence of tenants and others in the courtroom.

        The attorneys were reportedly working on a deal that would allow the landlords to shut down and also provide residents with a modest relocation package.

        On July 30, tenants were informed of the agreement, approved earlier that day by Judge Crush. Each unit would be paid a $500 relocation fee and have their security deposits returned. In exchange, each tenant is required to sign a lease termination agreement.

        In Friday's motion, the women say Mr. Pieples discussed “whether they would agree to vacate the premises by the end of August or early September ... and accept $1,000 each.”

        According to the women, Mr. Pieples told them the offer was “as good as it is going to get.”

        “Both Mitchell and Wilson told Pieples no,” the motion states. “Had the offer been rejected the court would have had to make a decision based on ... evidence submitted.”

        Even if the tenants' bid had failed, their arguments would have been “preserved for appeal and possible federal litigation,” the motion continued.

        Mr. Lawson accuses Legal Aid of “working in concert with those entities and individuals who are attempting to displace over 600 low-income families ... and pay them off with a measly $500.”


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