A view of 33 Stone St. in Augusta on Thursday.

AUGUSTA — Tenants of an Augusta apartment building and rooming house say they were told last Friday they had to be out within seven days.

And for a few days after that,  they were locked out of the building and forced to climb through windows into their rental units.

City officials and a lawyer from Pine Tree Legal have stepped in to help the tenants and try to prevent them from being left with no place to live while the spread of the coronavirus makes it hard for them to find other housing.

Tenant Julie Howarth, who lives in the building with her husband and 6-year-old son, said if she had to be out of the building by Friday, as their landlord told them last Friday, they would have been living in her car because they had nowhere else to go.

Tenants Wendy Bradford and her boyfriend, James Kennedy, said when they went to pay rent last Friday they were told the building was closing and everyone had to be out by this Friday, March 20.

Kennedy said the landlord shut down their passkey card, which they use to enter the locked building, so they had to climb through a window to get back in.

“This is going to land us on the streets,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to go after this. (Coronavirus) is making it impossible to find another place. Everywhere I’ve called, they ain’t taking anyone new.”

Howarth said their access card stopped working last Friday so she and other tenants entered the building through windows in the lobby area. She said the landlord, in apparent response, boarded up those windows so they would not open enough for someone to fit through. She said a pregnant upstairs tenant had to call her to let her into the building.

Howarth said the cards started working again Thursday.

Tenant Vincent Ferrie, a disabled veteran who works at Togus and has lived in the building since October, said it was a shock to everyone to be told they had to be out within seven days.

He said he has since been told tenants have at least until March 27, or possibly May 1, before they have to be out, timelines he said were extended after city and Pine Tree Legal officials became involved.

Ferrie said the building’s two owners have given him different stories about what to expect. He described officials’ efforts to help tenants as heroic.

“They wanted to kick us out on the street,” Ferrie said of the building’s owners. “But now they can’t. There’s nothing they can do. The owner said it’s going to stay open another week.”

Howarth, who works at the Big Apple, said she was told by city and Pine Tree Legal officials they cannot be evicted from the building until at least May 1. She said her landlord had also said the building will not close Friday. She said she plans to save up her money to find a new place to live.

Rob Overton, the city’s director of code enforcement, said he views the eviction as illegal, because tenants did not have enough notice about it. He said the building has 29 rental units, about half of them rooming house units and the rest apartments. He said Thursday between 16 and 18 of those units were still occupied.

He reached one of the owners who assured him, as late as Tuesday, that the closure would not go forward as planned.

But Overton said that on Wednesday, he heard from tenants who were not able to get into the building because the electronic access to it had been changed and some windows of the building had been secured.

“Our concern here is a large number of people who could be made homeless,” Overton said.

He said one of the owners told him they were losing too much money to keep the building open. He said he does not think the planned closure was due to concerns about the coronavirus, but added that makes it an especially challenging time for a tenant forced to find another place to live on such short notice, when landlords and others may be seeking to limit contact due to concerns about the virus.

“I don’t believe it has anything to do with the current pandemic,” Overton said. “But that certainly complicates the city’s ability to assist these people if they’re forced out of their homes. So we’ve gone out of our way to assist Pine Tree Legal on this.”

He said a lawyer for Pine Tree Legal, which provides legal assistance to low-income Mainers, was working on a temporary court order to delay the eviction and give tenants more time.

He said city code officers donned safety gear to go and talk to tenants, and have them fill out a questionnaire about their situation.

Howarth said she reached out to a 92 Moose radio station worker who told City Councilor Kevin Judkins about the situation. Judkins then reached out to the city manager and code enforcement, and city officials contacted Pine Tree.

Overton said the landlord would have to go through a formal eviction process, which could be delayed if court action is involved due to the courts scaling back operations due to coronavirus concerns.

Roland Pinette, who Overtone described as an owner, said he had no comment when reached by telephone Thursday.

The white, 15,544-square-foot building was purchased by JEDI LLC, which has a Cumberland mailing address, in January 2019 for $550,000, according to city tax records.

It was built in 1939 and is assessed by the city at $899,400.


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