Report on the Sarasota Solidarity Network's tenant campaign at Columbia Court.
Ownership of Columbia Court building changed ownership several times between July 2017 and February 2018. When the original landlords sold the building, they presumably switched all tenant rental agreements to month-to-month leases. The most recent owners, Belmont Associates, issued an agreement termination notice on February 19th, 2018, demanding that the tenants move out in nine days, on the 28th. (For reference, Florida law states that tenants on a month-to-month lease must be given at least 15 days to move out following termination of a lease.)
Tenant J.R. came first to SaraSol for assistance in fighting against the landlords wrongful “eviction” notice, as the notice itself provided no point of contact or actual notice that landlords had changed, and they surmised that something was wrong with the situation.
- Feb 20. Rreceived e-mail from J.R. & began email and text conversations / received docs.
- Feb 22. Sabrina & Leah call J.R. to get more details, learn that J.R. had taken over renting the space from their mother and had never signed any legal documents, that most tenants are likely on month-to-month payments, and that electricity to the outside lights, washer, and dryer has been shut off for a month.
- Feb 27 (afternoon). Leah (finally) finds correct information for most current building owner, and asks to get some clarity on the non-renewal notice on behalf of a tenant. While the receptionist who took the call was polite and helpful, the call got sent up to a supervisor who would not speak to anyone who was not a tenant, and hung up on us.
- Feb 27 (evening). Sabrina, Kris, & Leah visit the apartments and meet tenant A.O. This tenant had been dealing with the consequences of previous landlord incompetence and ignorance. A.O. said that the original landlords kept their deposit when they sold the building, rewired the communal laundry units to their electricity (then avoided Florida Power and Light until they gave up), and, with the revolving door of landowners, had not accepted the previous two rent checks, though there was, at the time, no indication of who they were to pay rent to.
- Feb 27 (night). SolNet group meets to debrief on what Leah, Kris, and Sabrina have learned, and discuss how to proceed. FW James joins in on getting information, using his real estate experience.
- Feb 28. J.R. calls Belmont Associates and gets extension on move. Further attempts to contact A.O. and J.R. about the case are not fruitful.
We would call this a “soft win.” The person who called in the complaint (J.R.) got the resolution they needed (a week-long extension on the non-renewal notice) before the SolNet needed to put any pressure on Belmont Associates. However, as we lost contact with J.R., we do not know if J.R. experienced any other issues with Belmont, or whether they got a deposit back, and these are issues that the SolNet could have potentially assisted with.
- We did a good job of trying to make sure other tenants would be involved in the fight, though perhaps we waited too long to do so, as most tenants seemed to have already moved out.
- We were clear on the limits of our capacity to help in regards to legal support, though one of our member’s knowledge of real estate law allowed us to put together a flyer that outlined some Florida tenants rights.
- We made in-person visits to tenants, which gave us some secondary insight on other issues tenants had with past owners of the building.
- Our SaraSol team had a variety of skills and backgrounds, making information gathering and eventual contact with the property owner less of a hassle; we knew who was best for each task, and it got done with little downtime.
What We Could Do Better Next Time
- We waited too long to determine who the property manager/owner was for the apartment building. Real estate ownership is notoriously hard to track down. Although in this case we were able to find the person behind 641 Columbia Court LLC in a pretty reasonable amount of time, sometimes it’s impossible.
- Although we knew of some other properties the owner held, we could have looked more thoroughly into these and figured out other targets for flyering/knocking.
- If there hadn’t been a need for such a quick turnaround, we could have looked into the owner’s connections in West Palm Beach and in Sarasota - other businesses, business partners, friends, charitable contributions, religious affiliation, etc. Next time we need to write a basic profile of who we’re dealing with.
- We could have been better coordinated ourselves. We have since developed bylaws that outline procedures for the SolNet, including how we vote on whether or not to take a case and how we decide action steps.