Jim Kenyon: These are hard times for tenants

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Valley News Columnist

Published: 10-05-2023 1:41 PM

On the way out of his first-floor apartment in Lebanon one afternoon early last month, 67-year-old Jesse Keenum came across a letter on the weathered deck leading to his front door.

“This notice is to inform you of your landlord’s intent to evict you and to request that you vacate the premises, on or before 10/09/2023.”

Keenum, an Air Force veteran who walks with the aid of a cane, has lived in the small apartment, a half-mile from downtown, for 14 years. Lorcan and Chelsea Nolan, of Lebanon, have been his landlords since they purchased the property, which includes two other apartments, in 2015.

With winter approaching, Keenum, who is currently on a month-to-month lease, worries that he’ll soon be homeless.

“It doesn’t seem I have much power to do anything,” he told me. “It seems the landlord has all the rights.”

When we met, I asked Keenum if he had fallen behind in his rent. He showed me the three-page eviction notice. Under reasons for eviction, the box for “failure to pay rent” was unchecked.

“I never missed a payment, never complained about anything,” Keenum said.

The “appliances are old,” but there’s “nothing wrong” with the apartment, he added.

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Why do the Nolans suddenly want a longtime tenant to disappear with little warning?

According to the Sept. 6 notice, Keenum has failed to “keep dwelling clean and sanitary and premises free of all rubbish.” The notice, signed by the Nolans’ attorney, John R. Hughes III, of Lebanon, cited “health code violations.”

But when I checked last week with the city’s planning and development department, which oversees code enforcement, it had no records of any health code violations at Keenum’s address, or even a request to inspect the apartment.

I emailed Chelsea Nolan, a Dartmouth Health administrator, to find out more about why she and her husband want Keenum to leave.

The Nolans declined my interview request. “As a matter of course, we treat the eviction process as a last resort to address significant breach of the landlord tenant agreement,” they responded via email.

Since purchasing the property next to Welch’s Gun Shop eight years ago for $182,000, the Nolans have become serious players in the Lebanon rental housing market.

They’ve spent $3.3 million on 10 multi-family properties, city records show. Last year, they purchased another house in Lebanon for $645,500 that is listed as their mailing address.

Along with health code violations, Keenum’s eviction notice indicates the Nolans want him to vacate the premises to “update/renovate building/unit.” (A neighbor told me that she hadn’t received an eviction notice and was unaware of any major building renovations in the works.)

Keenum, a Mississippi native, moved to the Upper Valley to take a job with a medical supply company as a delivery driver. During a stop at a patient’s home about 10 years ago, Keenum slipped on an icy patch, injuring his back and hip.

When the pain worsened, he stopped working. Keenum, who doesn’t own a car, relies on the Upper Valley Senior Center’s bus service to get to the grocery store and run other errands.

His monthly rent of $1,000, which doesn’t cover utilities, eats up almost half of his Social Security check. When his lease expired in June, Keenum said the Nolans wanted to raise his rent to $1,200. Keenum told them he could only afford a monthly increase of $100.

After receiving the eviction notice, Keenum called 603 Legal Aid, a nonprofit based in Concord that helps low-income people with civil matters. (The organization can be reached toll free at 1-800-639-5290 and its website is 603legalaid.org.)

Steve McGilvary, a paralegal with the nonprofit, couldn’t talk about Keenum’s case because it’s still pending, but he explained how the eviction process works.

The letter Keenum found outside his apartment was just the first step. But the notice, with its so-called “expiration date,” can be an effective scare tactic.

“A lot of our clients see the word eviction and they immediately think they will be homeless on that date,” McGilvary said. (In Keenum’s case, Oct. 9.)

McGilvary stressed that a “landlord can’t lawfully remove a tenant without a judge’s permission.”

A landlord can’t start legal proceedings in district court until after the eviction notice expires. A county sheriff then delivers a summons to the tenant, who shortly thereafter is entitled to his or her day in court.

If a judge grants the eviction, a tenant can still ask to stay put for a while. Judges are allowed to use their discretion to give tenants up to three months before vacating the premises.

In Keenum’s case, the good news is that even if the Nolans are successful in court, he’s unlikely to be left out in the cold this winter.

New Hampshire cities and towns are required to provide temporary housing for its low-income residents at risk of homelessness.

On Friday, I talked with Lynne Goodwin, the city’s human services director, about Keenum’s predicament. He’s likely to qualify for the city’s help in paying for temporary housing at a motel, she said.

But here’s the rub as I see it. Beyond any moral obligation they might have to help tenants in need, private landlords who put low-income residents out on street create problems for the rest of the community.

“It does pass the burden on to Lebanon taxpayers,” Goodwin said.

With that in mind, I asked the Nolans in a follow-up email last week, if they planned to push ahead with Keenum’s eviction.

I didn’t hear back.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.