Mobile Housing Board (MHB) Executive Director Michael Pierce responded late Tuesday to a letter from three members of the Mobile City Council condemning the agency’s threat to evict some residents from Central Plaza Towers (CPT) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pierce told Lagniappe the roughly eight residents given eviction notices from the senior housing complex had been warned more than once about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding the wearing of face coverings and other social distancing guidelines but continued to ignore them.
“We noticed a number of residents who were not following directives,” Pierce said. “They were not following social distancing guidelines and were not wearing masks.”
Despite an initial notice, Pierce said a number of residents were still gathering closely together without taking precautions. At that point, he said, MHB staff sent a second notice to the residents in question warning that eviction could result if they didn’t comply.
“COVID-19 is very aggressive and can spread like wildfire,” Pierce said. “We wanted to try to get in front of that.”
In a response letter to the councilmen, Pierce wrote that a number of residents at CPT have tested positive for COVID-19 and three residents have died as of May 20. He said the board needed to send a “strong message” to help keep residents and staff members safe.
“We can’t close our eyes and say ‘do what you want,’ because people will get sick,” Pierce said. “People will ultimately die.”
In their letter to Pierce, Councilmen Levon Manzie, C.J. Small and Fred Richardson urged Pierce and the board to reconsider the evictions that would be happening “amidst a global pandemic.”
“It is very troubling that some of our residents — especially some of the most vulnerable — could be evicted during this crisis,” they wrote. “We are also concerned about similar actions being taken at Boykin Towers, Downtown Renaissance and Emerson Gardens.”
The councilors noted both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as Gov. Kay Ivey, have urged against evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when the letter was written, Ivey’s guidance on evictions only applied to folks being forced out due to financial reasons. Failure to comply with health regulations was not protected.
When asked about evictions by Lagniappe, a HUD spokesman did not really answer the question. Instead, the HUD spokesman seemed to recap the events written about in this story.
“The local [public housing authority] is working with the City Council to work with residents to keep a roof over their head during this uncertain time, but strongly encourages their cooperation to keep themselves and their neighbors safe amid the pandemic,” a HUD spokesman wrote in an email.
Richardson criticized Pierce for his letter in response to the councilmen. The District 1 councilman, who represents residents of CPT in Crichton, told Lagniappe Pierce failed to answer the question he was initially asked. He also criticized Pierce for threatening to evict the residents rather than moving furniture or closing down the portions of the building where those in question were meeting in large groups.
“You can move whatever you want to move,” Richardson said. “He ignored that. Space out the seats and don’t allow visitors.”
Anything is better than possibly forcing people out of their homes during a global pandemic, Richardson said. Eviction should be a last resort, he said.
“He doesn’t have to evict,” Richardson said of Pierce. “There’s plenty of things he could do. There are plenty of things he can do besides evict. He’s got to deal with that in some other way.”
Richardson, who has taken recently to publicly criticizing local restaurants and other service providers who do not enforce a mask policy for employees, said MHB should give out masks to all residents of CPT before forcing them to wear face coverings.
Pierce told Lagniappe he doesn’t want to evict any of the residents in question, but wants them to comply and “work with” the board as it helps residents get through the pandemic. In his letter to the councilmen, Pierce echoed these sentiments.
“There is absolutely no desire to see any of our residents removed, but we do have an obligation to enforce the rules and the provisions of the leases to ensure the peaceful enjoyment of the development for the residents who choose to comply and those that should not have to be subjected to exposure to any harm,” Pierce wrote. “So after careful consideration and advice of counsel, we had no other option but to send the strongest message possible that the failure to comply with the prescribed guidance would have consequences.”
In the letter, Pierce reiterated that MHB would test all senior residents for COVID-19.
“Our partnership with Franklin Primary Health Center commenced last week,” he wrote. “Franklin is testing all residents, staff and contractors assigned to CPT for COVID-19 before going to our other senior sites. The partnership is critical to our effort to stop the spread; however, no amount of testing or preventative guidance can assist our residents or community if individuals are not held accountable for willfully endangering themselves and others with no fear of consequences.”
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