Jim Kenyon: A small win 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.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 12-24-2023 1:14 AM

Jesse Keenum, a 67-year-old disabled veteran, is staying home for the holidays — and hopefully well beyond — after his landlord recently backed off from trying to kick him out of the Lebanon apartment he’s lived in for 14 years.

While Keenum’s case hardly breaks new ground for tenants’ rights, it shows that someone threatened with eviction for questionable reasons in New Hampshire can still fight back.

After receiving an eviction notice — his second since September — a few days before Thanksgiving, Keenum was at risk of joining the homeless ranks this winter.

He lives on a fixed income and doesn’t own a car. But he does have a cellphone, which he used to call 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.)

Steve McGilvary, a paralegal at 603 Legal Aid, took an immediate interest in what was happening to Keenum, who has “always paid the rent on time,” a court hearing showed.

Even with his stellar payment history, Keenum was still hit with an eviction notice from his landlord’s attorney in early September. He was given a month to move out.

According to the notice, Keenum had failed to “keep (the) dwelling clean and sanitary and (the) premises free of all rubbish.”

But before a landlord can boot a tenant in New Hampshire, a judge must sign off. If Keenum stood any chance of remaining in his apartment for even the short term, 603 Legal Aid had to find an attorney who would represent him pro bono.

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The organization reached out to longtime Lebanon attorney Patrick Hayes — and not for the first time. “He’s one of the attorneys we can really count on,” McGilvary told me last week.

I also had heard from Keenum and wrote about his predicament in early October.

Keenum, an Air Force veteran, had moved into the Bank Street apartment, which is a half-mile from downtown Lebanon, around 2010. A few years later, he was a delivery driver for a medical supply company when he slipped on ice, injuring his back and hip. Over the years, the pain has worsened, limiting his mobility and making it so he couldn’t work.

In 2015, a Lebanon couple, Chelsea and Lorcan Nolan, bought the building, which has two other apartments, where Keenum lives. It’s among 10 multi-family properties the Nolans have purchased for a total of $3.3 million, city records show.

The Oct. 9 deadline that Keenum was given for vacating the apartment passed without the Nolans filing the necessary court paperwork to get the case before a judge.

But Keenum received the second notice in late November and was ordered to appear in Lebanon District Court on Dec. 5.

When I arrived at the courthouse that morning, Keenum — his cane leaned against the empty jury box — was sitting at the defense table with Hayes. “I couldn’t have done it on my own,” Keenum told me.

At the hearing, the Nolans’ attorney, John R. Hughes III, of Lebanon, presented photos of Keenum’s apartment cluttered with boxes and debris. Hayes pointed out the photos were more than 3 months old.

“He’s cleaned up some” since the photos were taken, Hayes told Judge Edward Tenney.

The Nolans had informed Keenum via email in April that they weren’t renewing his lease because they planned to renovate the apartment, Hughes told the judge. Keenum’s monthly rent of $1,100 is below market rate, Hughes added.

After hearing from both sides, Tenney ruled the renovation claim “invalid.” The Nolans’ argument that they needed Keenum to vacate so they could renovate was a “red herring,” the judge said. “What they really want to do is raise the rent.”

Keenum is on the city’s waiting list for affordable senior housing. Until an apartment becomes available, “he has no place else to go,” Hayes told the judge.

Hayes brought up the alleged “health code violations” the Nolans also cited for wanting Keenum gone. The Nolans never made a formal complaint to the city, which could have triggered an inspection.

To say there are health code violations but not notify the city’s health inspector “lends less credibility to your argument,” the judge told the Nolans.

Tenney recommended they ask the city to take a look inside the apartment. Within hours of the hearing, a city inspection team was knocking on Keenum’s door.

He asked if the inspection could wait until the following week. City officials agreed to hold off.

In the meantime, Keenum was able to get help cleaning up the apartment. The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council sent over volunteers. Keenum’s social worker at the Veterans Administration office in White River Junction pitched in. The Nolans were also helpful, providing a dumpster to haul away debris, apparently eliminating a need for a city health inspection.

And it gets better. Lorcan Nolan has said that Keenum can remain on a month-to-month lease until he finds senior housing, Keenum told me.

Why the change of heart?

I emailed the Nolans last week, but didn’t hear back.

At the courthouse on Monday, I happened to see Hayes, who had heard about the recent developments from Keenum. Although Keenum doesn’t have a written lease, Hayes was hopeful the matter had been worked out.

“It’s gratifying to be able to help someone in Jesse’s situation,” Hayes said.

“Everybody deserves a lawyer, whether they can afford one or not.”

On Thursday, I asked Keenum about his Christmas Day plans. “I’ve got a brisket in the freezer and a small ham to cook,” he said. “I’ll probably make some mashed potatoes.”

He expects to spend the holiday alone — at home.

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