This photo of Willow Oaks apartment complex in May 2021 reflects the complex’s conditions when Rayna Mike was charging rent despite not owning the apartments. The units have since been renovated under new ownership. Photo by Jacob Steimer

While at work, Erica Hillard received a call from her boyfriend. 

A sheriff was at their apartment to evict them and her three children. Hillard, who works in fast food, was shocked, angry and confused. She had no idea she was being evicted.

She rushed home to discover her dressers, bed and television already outside and strange men hauling out more of her belongings. The sheriff showed her a photo of the paperwork permitting the eviction. 

Hillard, a 30-year-old Westwood High School graduate, asked one family member to pick her kids up from daycare and another to bring a truck by. They carted most of her things to a storage facility and the rest to her aunt’s house, where she lived for two years before finding her next place.

Rayna Mike had evicted her, even though she did not own the Willow Oaks apartments anymore.  

However, Mike — who had been managing the property prior to the tax sale — continued charging tenants rent and evicting those who wouldn’t pay.

With $439,000 in unpaid taxes and a long rap sheet of code violations, Willow Oaks was sold at a tax sale in October 2019. Because no private buyer was willing to pay that amount, the property was transferred to the Shelby County Land Bank.

After learning about this in the summer of 2020, a lawyer for the county sent Mike a cease-and-desist notice and a parallel letter to residents of the property that instructed them to stop paying rent and consult an attorney.

Hillard received this letter shortly before the sheriff showed up. 

While Mike no longer owns or manages Willow Oaks, she has continued operating in Memphis. At a North Memphis apartment complex she owns, she has similarly allowed unpaid taxes to pile up. Residents there described infestations of mold, mice and snakes, and county records show she regularly evicts despite these conditions. (When reached for comment, Mike declined to discuss the conditions at the complexes at length but said the North Memphis one has “no mold” and “regular maintenance”.)

On Willow Oaks’ block of Ketchum Road, there were 35 complaints of code violations in 2020 alone. At the North Memphis complex, there have been 38 in the last three years, which is still quite a large number, according to longtime code enforcement officer Eddie Jones. 

According to her LinkedIn page, Mike started her apartment company — a “syndicator of high yielding apartment opportunities” — in 2015. On that site, she lists “civil rights,” “economic empowerment” and “poverty alleviation” as some of the charitable causes she supports.

Mike told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism she had every right to continue charging rent at Willow Oaks since she maintained the right to “redeem” it. After a property is sold at tax sale, the original owner who has failed to pay taxes usually has one year to “redeem” it by paying off the back taxes. The purchaser — in this case, Shelby County — has ownership rights during the redemption period but doesn’t receive the deed until after it ends. An LLC tied to Mike did eventually redeem the property before later selling it. 

West Tennessee Legal Services managing attorney Vanessa Bullock, though, told MLK50 that most judges would “have a hard time buying” Mike’s argument. She said Mike’s charging of rent during this period sounded like “theft” to her.

Hillard said her eviction felt illegal, but — like so many other tenants — she couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer.

“I didn’t know who to reach out to or talk to about the situation,” she said. 

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com


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