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SEARCY -- Tuesday morning, Samantha Durby's inbox was flooded with messages from her neighbors asking her what was going on with the apartment complex. They'd all been handed partially handwritten eviction notices the night before.

Many of the residents of The Townhouse Apartments are disabled. Almost all of them are on fixed incomes from disability or Social Security checks each month, and they're crammed into one- and two-bedroom apartments, sometimes as many as 15 people to a unit.

Many were told to leave within three days, some within 10, while others weren't given a deadline. Rent is close to $450 a month for several. On Friday, some residents got notices written in marker on a piece of paper saying that they needed to pay rent. Once they'd paid it, they got the eviction notices.

Some notices had scribbling on them referring to amounts owed, which many residents contested. Some showed an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter handfuls of receipts for paid rent, written on small paper tickets. But many said they don't have leases.

The eviction notices read: "Mr. Gerald Joyner has SOLD The Townhouse Apartments to a company out of Little Rock. They plan to totally gut the apartments and start renovation IMMEDIATELY. They are wanting ALL units vacated immediately, for the water and electricity will be unhooked from the building during construction/remodeling."

Gallery: The Townhouse Apartments: Residents at these Searcy apartments were told this week to leave

Gerald Joyner, who just sold the apartment complex at 303 W. Center Ave., has been cited at least five times over the past three years for city code violations at the complex. The citations were for leaving an unmarked vehicle in the lot, letting the grass grow too high, failure to install working fire alarms and having a door that wouldn't open unless a screwdriver was used to open it.

The most recent citation was given in August.

Joyner purchased the property in 1984, records from the White County assessor show. Assessor notes say some of the units are in "very poor condition." The 43 two-story apartments are in multiple buildings, two running perpendicular to a third with parking lots on either side.

Joyner wouldn't say to whom the complex was sold, contractors said they didn't know who the new owner was, and paperwork hadn't been filed with the county because the deal was finalized recently.

Samantha Durby calls a lawyer Wednesday concerning a notice from her landlord to vacate her Searcy apartment while Jesse Cross, another resident, listens. The landlord posted notices Monday directing residents of all 43 apartments to leave the premises — some as soon as Wednesday and others within 10 days.

Many apartment locks don't work. Indoor walls in many units are riddled with holes, and fuzzy white mold coats some of the ceilings. One building's exterior brick wall has a dent from a car accident months ago, windows are shattered and most of the laundry machines don't work or are missing.

Residents have resorted to washing their clothes in bathtubs or begging for the money to go to the laundromat. Residents say they complain nearly daily about the deficiencies.

Joyner at first declined to comment on what was going on and drove away when a reporter asked questions. He later released a statement through Andrew Norwood, an attorney and his grandson.

"No tenant has been or will be unlawfully evicted from the apartment complex in question," the statement reads.

Norwood said in a phone interview that residents who are up-to-date on rent will be given 30 days to move; those who are behind will be served with unlawful-detainer suits, a civil summons to appear in court.

Durby's notice gave her three days to leave, but she and at least two other tenants said they pay their rent at the end of the month when their government checks come in. She said she has paid everything she owes.

Durby has a reputation for fixing things for her neighbors. She's unclogged bathtubs, scrubbed carpets infested with bedbugs and roaches, and cleaned discarded clothes and garbage from abandoned apartments.

"I can't read, but when it comes to me helping somebody, I'm not going to let nobody go homeless," Durby said. "I'm sure not going to let nobody go hungry."

She's lived at The Townhouse Apartments for nearly four years with her aunt and brother, both of whom have disabilities, and two of her children.

Durby was served with a cease-and-desist letter Wednesday, threatening a lawsuit if she didn't stop "making slanderous statements to a third-party insinuating Mr. Joyner hired you to run his apartment complex."

Durby received the letter while an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter was a few yards away on the phone with Joyner's lawyer.

Norwood, who sent the letter, said it referred to rumors Durby was spreading around town.

Before the letter was sent, Durby had repeatedly said the opposite to a reporter. She said she wasn't an employee of Joyner's and had never been paid by him or had a rent reduction for cleaning or fixing up apartments.

"Usually, I have a problem, I fix it," Durby said.

Joyner spent much of Tuesday afternoon and most of the day Wednesday either sitting in his truck in the parking lot of the apartment complex or driving around the block.

Days before the eviction notices were handed out, Valerie Rodgers' sister was planning to move into another apartment in the complex. She'd arranged to move in this week, but Rodgers told her not to move after the notices were handed out.

Rodgers has four children; her husband died last year from a heart attack. She, along with many other residents, had heard the rumors that Joyner was planning to sell the place. But they said that every time they asked him if they should start looking for new homes, he said no, that they had time.

Jamie Harris has lived at The Townhouse Apartments for only a month and said she paid her rent when she moved in, only to be told she needed to move out.

Most people who live there moved in because they can't afford to live anywhere else, Rodgers said.

"Why else would you live in a place without a working stove or refrigerator," she said.

Jesse Cross said he was worried about the children -- seven live in his apartment, along with eight adults. He doesn't like for the kids to play outside alone because there is so much exposed wiring. While the Democrat-Gazette reporter was there, one resident yelled out that her neighbor had been shocked while trying to plug in her coffee maker.

Cross was not sure what the group is going to do. He said he can't stay with his mother, who lives in Center Hill, for too long because her parents are about to move in with her and all the kids he lives with have become like his own. He worries they'll be on the streets.

Scotty Bailey, another resident, moved his children in with family members because he doesn't have electricity anymore. Several residents don't, which Norwood said is the responsibility of individual tenants. Bailey is trying to rally the residents to join in a single lawsuit to stop the evictions.

"We are the bottom of the bucket as far as society looks at it," he said. "But we are still human beings."

At least one apartment also doesn't have water, which Bailey thinks is a tactic to get people to move out more quickly.

Norwood said the water had not been shut off, and told the newspaper to call Searcy Water & Sewer Systems for proof. But the utility declined to answer questions, citing Act 186, a 2015 law that exempts certain records from municipal utility systems from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Contractors went to the complex Wednesday afternoon to examine the property, and one resident woke up Wednesday morning to what she thought was someone knocking on the door.

It was actually the sound of workers hammering on the wall in the vacant apartment next to hers, and there is now a hole under her kitchen sink connecting the two units.

Durby called a lawyer, she talked to the police and isn't sure what to do anymore. She's worried her neighbors will be homeless in the next few days. They're a tight-knit group, referring to one another by pet names. They go to church together on Mondays, keep an eye on all the kids and share drags of their Marlboro menthols.

"I can't fix this one," Durby said to her neighbors. "I can't fix this one. I'm so sorry."

Metro on 10/25/2018

Print Headline: Suddenly, tenants at 1 Arkansas apartment complex told to get out

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