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Waverly flood victims face eviction from a landlord who turned down rent

Leah Skelton.jpg
Posted at 2:52 PM, May 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-26 21:26:55-04

WAVERLY, Tenn. (WTVF) — A deadly flood almost left them homeless, but now neighbors in Waverly say their landlord is forcing them out anyway.

Last year, NewsChannel 5 Investigates reported about how tenants at Briarwood Apartments were given an ultimatum: either sign a release agreement that says management won’t be responsible for any issues related to flood repairs or move out.

Tenant Leah Skelton refused to sign this new agreement, which she says is the real reason they kicked her out.

Skelton said she paid rent every month since the August flood, but the same checks would appear at her door in an envelope each time. She said the landlord ran from her when she attempted to deliver the check personally.

“Then she came and she served me with papers saying that they no longer wanted to renew my lease, but she already gave me my new lease,” Skelton said.

Skelton appeared before Judge Haylee Bradley-Maples on May 12 for what she thought would be her opportunity to present her case. Standing to her left was local attorney Scott Daniel, who admitted he was only a stand-in for Briarwood’s legal team. He didn’t have to say much.

What Skelton didn’t know was that the decision to evict had already been made long before anyone said anything.

“This today is just to let you know that you’re going to have to move,” Bradley-Maples said.

Skelton was shocked and at times tried to present her evidence anyway. She explained how she even signed a new lease with Briarwood Apartments on January 12, 2022. Judge Bradley-Maples told Skelton she had 40 days to vacate the property and any evidence could be heard at court in mid-August — well after her move out date.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to come back, and we’re going to talk about what if anything is owed,” Bradley-Maples said.

Meaning no matter what Skelton had to share, she would always end up in the same place — without a home and with very few options.

It’s hard enough finding a place she can afford, but now this single mother of two must explain an eviction on her record for non-payment of rent.

“A small town like this, it’s hard to find somewhere to rent if they’re saying you don’t pay your rent,” Skelton said.

Skelton showed us cashier’s checks for the rent Briarwood said she refused to pay. She also had the release agreement Briarwood demanded she signed if she intended on staying.

“First I got the release agreement. About a month later I got the new lease and then about a month later, I got the moving papers. I got kind of hit with all three of them at one time,” Skelton said.

All this after one of the deadliest floods in Tennessee history nearly washed away her home. The damage was extensive, but some said they were still on the hook for rent in a home that was unlivable. NewsChannel 5 Investigates met neighbors still living at Briarwood who said they signed this release agreement out of fear. Others told us they chose not to sign and then realized rent was returned. They chose instead to move out on their terms.

The release agreement states that the person signing agrees to “indemnify and hold harmless Briarwood Apartments for and from any and all claims for losses or damages for every nature whatsoever and for any expense therefrom, including but not limited to attorney’s fees, court costs, principle owed, interest owed, or any other damages or losses claimed by or on behalf of myself and all other occupants or guests, concerning or regarding the repairs anticipated to be performed in the coming months and lingering conditions of the apartment due to the flood on August 21, 2021.”

It’s one thing if repairs were done on time and without issue, but Skelton said it took months just to get walls replaced. She says even now, the job doesn’t appear finished and that’s a risk she won’t take.

“…but that doesn’t seem to matter because when you own a property, you can give a signed lease and then the next week say move out,” Skelton said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates tried to ask the landlord why she was turning down rent and instead were told to leave the property. That’s about as much as we got from management before the landlord called Waverly police. As for Alabama Rep. Lynn Greer, who is still heavily involved with his family’s business, his office has not returned our calls.

Attorney Zac Oswald from the Legal Aid Society said this wouldn’t be much of a problem if both sides gave up something in return, but that’s not what he sees here.

“The release is only taking things away from tenants. It’s not giving them anything, which means that modification to the lease agreement that existed is going to be null and void,” Oswald said.

Oswald said that even if you did sign the agreement, you could still challenge it in court. He said there are very few laws on the books for landlord and tenant rights in a county this small.

We have the Tennessee Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (TURLTA) which says you can leave at any point and even get your prepaid rent or deposit back if your rented home is unlivable, but that only applies to counties of at least 75,000 people. Lawmakers made it so that number is based only on the 2010 Census. Places like Putnam and Greene counties now have the population size for eligibility, but they’re still not recognized under TURLTA.

Oswald says decisions on evictions will ultimately come from the judge, but he says it’s up to tenants to clearly explain their story. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Oswald says he was more than a little confused when he heard the judge had already decided without consulting Skelton’s evidence.

Skelton did find a new home shortly after the hearing, but Oswald says they have filed a last-minute request to re-open the eviction case. That hearing is scheduled for June 9 in the Humphreys County Courthouse.

Greer Management has not commented on the release agreement they sent their tenants after the flood. They provide management services for affordable housing units in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Their primary office location is in Rogersville, Alabama.