CHESTERTOWN — Following a presentation at a town council meeting here Nov. 1, residents of Brook Meadow apartments spoke of their experiences of discrimination at the complex at a community dialogue event Thursday, Nov. 18 at Washington College.
This community dialogue was the third installment of the conversation series, which aims to get college students and Chestertown community members together to discuss community issues. These talks are facilitated by Student Government Association Secretary of Service and Community Relations Meagan White and community organizer John Queen.
The Nov. 18 discussion focused on alleged discriminatory and racist housing practices in federal housing in Chestertown.
Present were over a dozen students, a couple community members, Chestertown Councilwoman Meghan Efland, Councilman-elect Jose Madrano and three other tenants of the apartment complex.
After doing a round of introductions, where each attendee said their name, explained why they were there and defined what “discrimination” meant to them, Queen and the other tenants recounted their experiences living in the apartment complex.
“The reason we’re here today is to talk about discriminatory and unethical practices in Kent County, Maryland. More specifically, in Chestertown, in the housing development of Brook Meadow apartments,” Queen said.
Queen said that Brook Meadow was the focus because that’s where he and the other tenants lived, but the issues they are facing are prevalent anywhere with federal regulated housing.
The issues described included mold, leaks, issues with heating and ventilation, rodent droppings and other abysmal living conditions that are not being fixed. Several residents, including children, had respiratory issues as a result of mold in the apartments. There also were complaints of a maintenance person being called to fix an issue but being in other rooms in the apartment. They were also not given notice maintenance would be in the apartment at all.
“A lot of the tenants there feel like we are being discriminated against for several reasons,” Queen said, listing that mistreated tenants are not friends with the property manager, speak out against the wrongs in the community, and more.
The Kent County News reached out to Brook Meadows management on Monday, Nov. 22. They choose not to make a statement on the allegations made at the public meetings.
Queen said he has collected at least six years worth of evidence of discrimination.
Despite that evidence, the reason the tenants are coming together now is because in June of 2020, the property manager at Brook Meadows called all of the tenants to inform them the buildings were being renovated and some people may have to move.
Queen said they were told that three things would happen for those who were moved off the property. One, they would not have to pay rent, and all costs associated with moving would be covered. Two, if they moved in with family, the complex would subsidize rent to the family for allowing the tenant to live there. Three, some tenants may be moved from the complex at the top of the hill to the one at the bottom.
Nothing was provided to the residents in writing outlining the aforementioned accommodations for those who were moved out, how long they would be displaced or anything else involving the process.
Queen said he was originally told in October 2020 that he would be living in the relocated apartment for three months. One month later, he was told the move would last a year. In February 2021, he was told he had to start paying rent. When he asked for the information in writing, he said the manager hung up on him.
“Remember the theme, when I ask for information, just remember this is the theme — hang up,” Queen said.
He then got legal representation from Mid-Shore Pro Bono and went to court.
The first time tenants received anything in writing was when Mid-Shore Pro Bono requested information on behalf of the entire complex, Queen said.
Another tenant, Niara Wilson, who also spoke at the Chestertown council meeting Nov. 1, told attendees Nov. 18 that her daughter went into respiratory distress several times because of the mold in her apartment.
Wilson said she was told several times to go to her parents’ house because the manager was unable to immediately fix the issues.
Once a year, residents must recertify to live within the federal housing. To do this, they must supply their Social Security card, tax forms and bank account statements.
Tenants said there were discrepancies in the number of times they each had to recertify in a year and what information they needed to provide, including the number of pay stubs.
On Oct. 15, Wilson was told her recertification put her over the scale to live in federal housing and she had to move out by Nov. 1. That was less than 30 days notice. Wilson said the only notice she received that she was being put out was a phone call.
If tenants who were over scale asked to see evidence of that, they were told the manager did not have to show them.
When Wilson filled out paperwork asking why she was vacating the apartment, she cited the phone call where she was told she had to be out by Nov. 1. Later, the property manager called and told her to change the paperwork and said her security deposit was “on the fence.”
Residents later found out that while they were made to move out in 2020, the complex did not begin getting permits for renovation work until 2021, meaning they were displaced for a year before any work was done.
Realtor Jyaire McCall was in attendance Nov. 18 and asked if the tenants had case managers.
“We don’t even know what you’re talking about right now. I’ve never heard of a case manager for any of this,” Queen said.
McCall said issues with property managers were supposed to go to a case manager.
She also suggested tenants begin documenting complaints against the property manager for not taking care of the issues they are reporting. She assured tenants that the government reads those complaints and with enough they would do an investigation.
Queen said that this was why they were having the discussion.
“All of us is trying to figure out things amongst ourselves. We figured if we put it in the public eye, we’ll start hearing about resources, we’ll start hearing about our rights as tenants, we’ll start hearing some of these things,” Queen said.
Queen said next steps were looking into legal representation for some of the “dire cases” like himself and Wilson and reaching out to government officials at every level through meetings and letters. He also asked students what they thought some solutions might be and told them to do their research about the federal housing process.
He also said many tenants are still afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.
“We just need to have both sides heard and we need to have the proper authorities vet the information so we know what’s going on,” Queen said.