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Tenants being forced out of Amherst apartments told to stay put

Echo Village Apartments at 30 Gatehouse Rd. in Amherst.

Echo Village Apartments at 30 Gatehouse Rd. in Amherst. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

Staff with Family Outreach of Amherst, a program of the Center for Human Development, met Wednesday with seven of the 19 tenants who have federal Section 8 vouchers to plan a way to preserve their housing and to reassure them that they won’t be on the streets come April 1.

Most of the 24 tenants at Echo Village were notified in early February in letters from new property manager Eagle Crest that rents will increase and their tenancies would be terminated at the end of March. For those with federal Section 8 vouchers, the hikes, expected to be between 20 and 40 percent, would make it impossible for them to stay.

“You have the right to safe, affordable housing so you do not have to vacate your property on March 31,” said Francine Rodriquez, a program manager for Family Outreach. “The best thing to do is stay put, get the Massachusetts Justice Project involved and make sure you’re caught up on any arrears.”

Rodriquez is having each tenant contact the Massachusetts Justice Project, which acts as the intake for Community Legal Aid in Northampton. The Massachusetts Justice Project will represent the individual tenants should they be formally evicted.

“We need to ensure everyone has legal representation,” Rodriquez said.

Garine Roubinian, a caseworker for Family Outreach, said because court proceedings will be needed to evict tenants, it is possible Eagle Crest will negotiate arrangements to let tenants stay or get new housing.

This might include allowing families with children to remain until the end of the school year.

Roubinian is also scheduling a roundtable from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at Family Outreach’s office at 10 Gatehouse Road, where it is expected town and school officials will be available to answer questions, such as whether the children involved may remain in Amherst schools if they must move out of town and what municipal strategies are being explored for preserving affordable housing.

Jennifer Dieringer, managing attorney for Community Legal Aid, said it is too early to know what level of legal assistance tenants will need. That will depend, she said, on how and when eviction proceedings begin.

Dieringer said Amherst is already a difficult community for low-income residents due to the high rents, but having time to organize plans should help. Still, 19 Section 8 tenants losing their homes at once is challenging, she said.

Rodriquez said it won’t be easy to find new homes where low-income tenants can meet the $1,222 monthly rent for two-bedroom and $1,400 for three-bedroom apartments allowed by the Section 8 program.

With first and last months’ rent and security deposits, as well as moving expenses, tenants are also looking at $3,000 or more in up-front costs before they settle into a new home.

“We’re talking about thousands of dollars for each family,” Rodriquez said.

Tenants who attended the initial meeting expressed worry that they may have to move from the town where they have been raising their children, possibly before the school year has ended.

Latigra “Tiggy” Heckstall said Echo Village has been a good place to live. She said her sister and grandmother also have units there. If forced to move, they would likely be separated, and possibly no longer be in Amherst, she said.

“Realistically, the only way we find an apartment to move into this fast is in Springfield or Holyoke,” Heckstall said.

Her son has an individualized education plan at Fort River School and has just started making friends, she said. “It took him a long time to get used to this school,” Heckstall said.

Another tenant, Marc Abely, a single father of three, said he doesn’t want to move before the school year ends. “I think it’s completely unreasonable timing in the middle of the school year,” he said.

Tenant Tracylee Boutilier said she feels as though the town is pitting low-income residents against students for rentals. She suggested the town pass a law requiring large-scale property management companies to set aside a percentage of homes for low-income families.

She added that she also fears low-income housing will soon be segregated in Amherst.

Santa Barbara Pabon said she has appreciated living with a mix of people. “This is a multicultural community, and they’re taking the culture out of it,” she said.

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