When a landlord, accompanied by armed guards, tried to illegally evict a South Memphis mother this week, the renter had what many do not: Her own squad of community activists who helped thwart the attempt.
Since November, landlord Destanie Palmer has been trying to evict Angelic Cathey from the duplex where she lives with her three children and fiance. But Shelby County General Sessions Court records show Palmer does not have the required legal documents. Instead, she tried to use armed security and scare tactics to force her out, said Cathey, 29.
“I feel like my life’s in danger,” Cathey said.
On Monday, tensions escalated when several men – at least some of whom were armed – and Palmer arrived at the home, according to a video and witnesses.
One of the men, Antonio Frazier, who was maskless but wearing the uniform of a private security company and carrying a gun and handcuffs, tried to serve Cathey with what he falsely claimed were papers that allowed the eviction. Within hours, several community activists also showed up and put out a call on social media for others to come and help block the men.
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“If it was just her and her family there, I think that they would have been overwhelmed by the amount of men with guns and would have probably fled the property out of fear,” said Jayanni Webster, a family friend and housing rights advocate.
Not long after the organizers – and police – arrived, the men left. But Cathey and supporters were still on guard. Supporters have been taking shifts to monitor Cathey’s house since Monday, Webster said.
The dramatic attempted eviction played out while thousands of Memphis families are behind on rent. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, almost 10,500 evictions have been filed in Memphis since March 15.
At the end of December, Congress extended until Jan. 31 a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent because of the coronavirus. Tenants can still be evicted for other reasons, however. To prevent eviction if they cannot pay, they must fill out a CDC declaration saying their rent payments have been impacted by a loss of income due to COVID.
The legal process requires the landlord to file for eviction in General Sessions court and secure a judgment from the judge, said Webb Brewer, legal counsel for Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., a nonprofit organization working to revitalize Memphis neighborhoods. After a 10-day waiting period for appeals, a judge will sign a writ of possession and it’s only when that writ of possession is served that a renter can be legally evicted.
In a September report, the National Council of State Housing Agencies estimated that in Tennessee, between 220,000 and 310,000 households could be at risk of eviction and that renters owe between $457 million and $599 million in unpaid rent to landlords.
According to Shelby County Property Assessor online records, Palmer bought the duplex in June. Cathey has had trouble making her $400-a-month rent since her hours were cut at McDonald’s. But Palmer had worked with her on making rent payments, she said, allowing her until the end of the month to pay.
In late September or early October, Cathey filed complaints with Memphis & Shelby County Code Enforcement about long standing issues with the house, including a lack of heat, mold and faulty wiring. And that’s when Palmer stopped being flexible about the rent and refused to accept partial payments, Cathey said, she believes in retaliation for filing the code complaint. Palmer did not respond to multiple texts and calls asking for comment.
A hearing on the complaints was set in Shelby County Environmental Court for Nov. 13, according to code enforcement inspector Judith Norman.
But on Nov. 3, 10 days before their environmental court hearing, Palmer filed the initial forms to begin evicting Cathey from the duplex where the family has lived for more than two years, Cathey said.
By the time of the Nov. 13 hearing, Palmer had fixed the heating and the wiring, Cathey said, and the complaints were dismissed. But within days, the heating was no longer working and her hot water tank wasn’t either, she said.
Bunkered in, hunkered down
Hours after the men left, a visibly shaken Cathey recounted the day’s events that had turned her two-bedroom home near Mississippi Boulevard and Person into a bunker. A couch, stove and refrigerator were used to barricade doors. Because the heat was no longer working, Cathey was using the stove to heat the house. She’d left knives by the door for self-defense.
Her sons, ages 9, 8 and 5, who were supposed to be in virtual school, were worried for their safety during the confrontation, she said. “Why are they trying to shoot in here?” they asked her, and “Are they trying to kill us, Mom?” Her small dog was in a crate in the corner under blankets out of fear, she said.
Monday’s incident wasn’t Cathey’s first interaction with Frazier. In December, Frazier impersonated a Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy on a call, she said, a charge he denies. And in the weeks that followed, Cathey said she believed she was followed to work, and received threatening calls and texts from Frazier, which he also denies.
Cathey said that on Saturday, Frazier came to her house and told her to leave, but Frazier said he was there to check on the other side of the duplex. After he left, she put a sign on her door saying no one was allowed on her property, she said. At around 2 a.m. on Sunday, she received a text from Frazier with a photo of the sign on her door and the message: “Good try we be (sic) there tomorrow.”
Frazier made good on his promise. A video taken by community activist Hunter Demster shows Frazier telling Cathey that because the eviction hearing happened and “she didn’t show up” to court – an allegation which is not true – she needed to leave the premises. Cathey and her fiance, Keonte Grace, said guns were pulled, which Frazier denies.
Cathey eventually called Memphis police, who took statements and, at Cathey’s request, she said, told Frazier, Palmer and the rest of their group to leave. Today Cathey spoke with police investigators about pressing charges and possibly obtaining an order of protection. Memphis police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Frazier said he didn’t go to the house to try and evict Cathey. “The only thing I did was come to assist the owner to let her know… what was it she had to do,” he said. “If I did anything wrong, I would be in jail right now,” he added.
In videos of the incident, Frazier wore a uniform from LPAC Team Protection Security Service, but company officials say he’d been terminated and was acting on his own.
Brewer, the attorney consulting with Neighborhood Preservation, said some landlords, especially small landlords without lawyers, will do “exactly things you’re not supposed to do under the law.”
Sometimes advocates are able to stop the extrajudicial evictions, Brewer said, but he’s seen some landlords circumvent the law and force tenants out of their homes. “Some have been extraordinarily aggressive about trying to put people out and being unwilling to listen to lawyers or somebody telling them ‘You can’t do this, you know; you’re breaking the law,’” he said.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has suspended all in-court proceedings until Jan. 29, and because of that, judges have likewise suspended issuing writs of possessions, which is required for a legal eviction.
Even though Cathey and her family can’t be evicted yet, she’s planning on leaving the duplex as soon as she can. She’s relying on the advice of lawyers and the support of her community, but she also doesn’t want to live somewhere she doesn’t feel safe.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “But I know the best thing to do is get out of there.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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