Starkville resident Latoya Lee and her son, Mason, are being removed from their residence with no place to go.
After enduring what they called uninhabitable living conditions for months, they are unwillingly having to leave their apartment and find somewhere new to stay in a short period of time.
“We were notified a month ago that we might have to leave,” Lee said. “Then they show up Friday and tell us we have to be out by Tuesday. I just hope that we can go somewhere where (my son) can interact with other children.”
On Friday, Ferretti Property Services of Cleveland, Mississippi, informed all residents of a 61-unit apartment complex on Catherine Street in North Starkville, including Lee, that they were being evicted. It was the same day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on evictions due to COVID-19.
Twenty-one tenants of the property contacted Starkville attorney Austin Vollor over the weekend to pursue a lawsuit against Ferretti.
A preliminary injunction, filed Tuesday, prohibits Ferretti from removing residents from the property, and a temporary restraining order is in place for alleged management misconduct and negligence. Chancery Court Judge Joseph Studdard signed off on the injunction.
A hearing on the matter is set for 9 a.m. Sept. 8 at the Oktibbeha County Chancery Courthouse where both parties can argue their cases.
“We felt like someone needed to tell these people that they matter to this community and that we love them,” Vollor said of his clients. “Whatever happens with the lawsuit, I think we’re at least in the fight for them. We’re not just going to let some outsiders come in and kick them to the curb without following the proper procedures.”
Lee said she and some other tenants have never even met their new landlord. Because Lee has no way of communicating with the property manager, she said she has had to endure living in a unit with maggots and ants and water up to her ankles ascending from the floor.
“The first time I’ve ever seen (the new landlord) was when she brought papers around Friday to tell people to hurry up and get out in three days,” Lee said. “She doesn’t worry about helping us. She just worries about getting you out the door.”
Ferretti purchased the complex earlier this year from Simmons Properties, LLC out of Tupelo.
Rent rose from $450 to $550, but the landlord would not take any payments from tenants who were willing to pay or renew any leases, said Starkville Strong Director Brandi Herrington, who has been meeting with tenants. Meanwhile, complaints of damaged air units, no hot water, broken refrigerators, leaks, mold and structural issues went unaddressed, she said.
Renters were given notices at the beginning of the month to appear in court Aug. 18. On the court date, tenants claimed no rent was asked to be paid back, but summons papers obtained from the Oktibbeha County Justice Court said all tenants must pay the landlord $74 for rent.
Justice Court Judge Marty Haug has not signed off on the eviction papers and would not comment on the case to The Dispatch on Tuesday.
The Dispatch attempted to contact Ferretti Property Services but was unsuccessful.
Helping the ‘underserved’
Now, organizations like the Oktibbeha County NAACP and Starkville Strong — a group formed to help residents struggling during the pandemic — are stepping in to try to find the displaced residents a place to stay.
Mississippi United to End Homelessness arrived Monday to help residents relocate to new housing. Oktibbeha County NAACP President Yulanda Haddix said these MUTEH funds will assist tenants with deposits and rent money.
“My goal now is to find vacant apartments and get them in there,” Haddix said. “(MUTEH) said if we can find them a place, whatever they need, they will pay for them to live and help with rent. We’re getting them started. … The bottom line is the most underserved people are taken advantage of.
In order to receive this funding from MUTEH, Haddix said she and her team are requesting all residents to first receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Haddix said she is also requesting the tenants to take a financial management class, hosted by Starkville Strong and the NAACP, to receive assistance.
“We want to teach people how to manage money because underserved people don’t have a history of that,” Haddix said.” “… Underserved people and the African American community have always been forgotten, and we are trying to break that gap. The idea is to teach our community how to survive in this great college town.”
Herrington said although MUTEH will assist tenants, Starkville Strong is still looking for donations and other resources to help them. The group will be providing tenants with all moving costs such as food and household items.
Haddix said Collegiate Heights Apartments on Gillespie Street in Starkville is working with tenants receiving MUTEH funding. Four tenants will begin moving into units at Collegiate Heights as soon as paperwork is processed, she said.
The homeless population in Starkville does not need to become more visible, Herrington said, and people should not be displaced based on a situation out of their control.
“It takes all of us working toward a common goal to inspire change, empathy and understanding,” Herrington said. “These are human beings.”