MANCHESTER, NH – Two women, who won an appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court over evictions, are moving on with their lives and into new apartments, after reaching agreements Thursday with their landlord.
Crystal Tejeda Soto, 48, and Audrey Rackliff, 44, were in 9th Circuit Court – District Division – Manchester on Thursday where their cases were sent back by the Supreme Court for further hearings.
Instead of a rehearing, the women reached agreements with their landlord, ARAA West Side Holdings of Chester. Both had fallen months behind in their rent after the Emergency Rental Assistance Program ended last year.
However, under their agreements, neither has to pay back rent. Soto needs to be out of her apartment at 352 Dubuque St. by May 30. Rackliff must pay only $500 – in two equal payments – and no rent, and be out of her 57 Cleveland St. apartment by June 15.
Both have already found new places with rents lower than what they are currently paying.
“The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the decision on the previous hearing because the circuit court made an error when ruling on the case. The Supreme Court sent the case back down to the circuit court level so it could be reheard according to the supreme court’s guidelines. This was not a retaliatory eviction and we strongly believe that if we were asked to present the evidence to the court today the court would have agreed,” said Ryan Weiss and Axel Ragnarsson in a joint statement.
Weiss is with Blue Door Living LLC, which manages Soto’s and Rackliff’s apartments for the owner, ARAA West Side Holdings of Chester. Aligned Real Estate Partner is the manager while Ragnarsson, who the tenants believed was the landlord, is listed with the NH Secretary of State as the manager of Aligned.
Soto and Rackliff contend they were served renovations evictions because they attended a tenants’ meeting in April 2022 after which photos of them holding posters saying #AxelEvicts were uploaded to social media. Two days later, they say Weiss called them to say they were being evicted.
“Today at court we reached an agreement that gave Soto & Rackliff time to move, while also preventing an eviction from being recorded on their record,” Weiss and Ragnarsson further said in their joint statement. “They stopped paying rent in January/February and owe a combined balance of $14,000, which we don’t expect to be able to collect, so we’re grateful for this matter to come to a conclusion. While the eviction was appealed Soto and Rackliff had an additional year to occupy their apartments. We’re grateful for the deal we were able to come to today with our tenants.”
Soto has lived in the Dubuque Street apartment with her partner Eric J. Bresette, 45, for 12 years. Rackliff has lived with her husband and son at 57 Cleveland St. for the past eight years. Both apartments are rundown and in need of renovations. (Interestingly, Soto and Bresette previously were tenants in Rackliff’s apartment before ARAA bought the buildings. She said at that time, the building was infested with bed bugs and spiders, one of which bit her resulting in her hospitalization.)
All parties were clearly happy with yesterday’s outcome.
Soto will be moving into a two-bedroom, air-conditioned apartment with a dishwasher and laundry on-site at 495 Old Wellington Road. Rent will be $1,200 a month, plus utilities. She currently is paying $1,525 plus utilities.
She said she isn’t just moving, it’s “more like running from Dubuque. Get me away from there.” Soto loved the neighborhood where everyone knew each other. She said, however, that in the past year few neighbors remain because of the sales of apartment houses – not just ARAA’s – and increase in rents that are just not affordable.
Her current apartment is dank and last year, they had to deal with an infestation of opossums that got into the walls. For years, the couple lived with sewage water flooding their first-floor apartment every time there was a downpour. Last year, when it happened once again while tenants’ rights activist Jessica Margeson of the Granite State Organizing Project was helping Soto with paperwork, they called the fire department which deals with life safety issues.
Firefighters, Margeson said, told the property manager they would repair the sewer line. Subsequently, a new line was put in and the bathroom renovated. However, Soto said leaking pipes are still a problem – the bathroom ceiling is stained because of it — and pipes in the basement are broken as well.
Soto’s and Rackliff’s problems began after ARAA bought their building and five others, together known as the West Side Seven, with a total of 40 apartments, from Shelley Carita of Meredith on Oct. 27, 2021, in a $4.2 million deal. The other five buildings are located at: 293 Amory St.; 558 Montgomery St.; 416 Rimmon St.; 599-601 Hevey St., and 200 Reed St. Each building is more than 100 years old, except for the Reed Street building which was built in 1940.
A day after the sale, tenants were notified they had 30 days to move out. Nothing came of that notice but in January 2022, ARAA raised rents by $425 to $600 a month.
Neither Soto nor Rackliff could afford the higher cost and neither could other tenants, many of whom were elderly, on disability and/or subsidized housing. They also couldn’t find another affordable place to live. Where tenants hadn’t complained about the condition of their apartments when the rent was cheap, they did when the rents were hiked.
“I just thought what they were doing was really not right,” Rackliff said of her landlord and of her filing the appeal. Her rent went from $900 to $1,500 a month without any improvements to the apartment.
“I don’t even make $1,500 a month,” said Rackliff, who receives disability payments. “I thought $1,500 is not right to pay when the building is falling down around you.”
The women filed the appeal without an attorney with Rackliff doing the heavy lifting, with an assist from Margeson.
A third tenant also posted a photo of himself holding the same #AxelEvicts sign but took it down when Weiss asked him to remove it. That tenant found another apartment – one that accepted his housing choice voucher – and so he was not part of the appeal.
Soto said she had no intention of taking down her photo. “It’s my freedom of speech,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Margeson said the circuit court did not consider the women’s retaliation defense which is what they contended in their appeal. Thursday’s hearing was to address that issue, but instead the agreements were worked out.
In the Supreme Court ruling, the court said the trial court rejected the tenant’s retaliation defense but “mistakenly focused upon whether their alleged protected activity occurred before or after the eviction notice was given.” That focus, the court said, constituted legal error.
“To the extent that the trial court found that the alleged protected activity occurred after the landlord/tenant writ was filed, the trial court was mistaken as a matter of fact. The evidence before the trial court was that the tenant meeting occurred on April 23, 2022, which was nearly two weeks before the landlord/tenant writ was filed on May 5, 2022.”
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