‘It’s not very church-like.’ SC woman evicted from church-owned house after 25 years

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On one of the hottest days of the year in July, flies feasted on a spoiled pack of chicken breasts that sat in the yard among the strewed belongings of a woman’s former home on Columbia’s King Street.

During the Columbia summer heat and in the middle of a pandemic, Elvira Kennedy, 76, had been evicted from her home of a quarter century after getting behind on rent. The yard looked like the house had vomited and spewed clothes, cabinets, mattresses, the food in the refrigerator and hundreds of other items onto the yard, sidewalk and curb in front of the home.

Willie Johnson, who also lived in the house, held a picture taken in about 2000 of a teenager with his prom date. The teen is Kennedy’s son, and Johnson thought she would want the photo, he said.

He was dealing with homelessness, Johnson said, and Kennedy had given him a place to stay. He wore a yellow shirt, one of the few pieces of clothes not ruined by the eviction. The shirt said Bethel African Methodist Episcopal.

Bethel A.M.E. Church owns the house that Kennedy rented for so long. Landmark Resources, a real estate company, managed the property.

“It’s not very church-like,” Johnson said about the eviction.

But the church’s pastor said Bethel didn’t kick out Kennedy. Rather, the management company that collected rent evicted her.

The eviction speaks to problems present in Columbia and the United States — housing for the low income and elderly, aging, homelessness and unemployment during the pandemic and gentrification.

With the latest federal eviction moratorium set to expire on Oct 30, thousands more South Carolina renters could be displaced.

Now, the Columbia NAACP branch is involved with Kennedy’s eviction.

“My personal stance, it’s an ungodly thing for anybody in the church to evict … a 76-year-old lady and put her stuff on the streets,” said Columbia NAACP branch President Oveta Glover. “Not just her, but anybody. For them to put her out in COVID season, I don’t know where God is in this matter.”

Starting over on King Street

In the mid-1990s, Elvira Kennedy moved with her twin sons from New Jersey to Columbia after her husband died, her son Sean said.

Their father’s death was hard on her, and she needed help and a change, said Sean, 39.

So she moved to Columbia, eventually renting the home next to her brother, James Stewart Jr., who had lived in town for years.

“We started over,” Sean said.

Elvira and Sean Kennedy stand near the house she lived in for almost 25 years before she was evicted in July.

Elvira and Sean Kennedy stand near the house she lived in for almost 25 years before she was evicted in July.

The homes they lived in were part of the Bethel A.M.E. Church campus between King and Woodrow streets in the Old Shandon neighborhood. When Bethel A.M.E. bought the former Shandon Baptist Church sanctuary in 1995, the purchase included four houses on King Street, property records show.

Stewart, who said he worked as a facilities manager for Bethel A.M.E. for about 15 years, bought his home from the church in 2019, according to property records. The church sold two other homes on the block in 2015. The house Kennedy rented is the last one on the block owned by the church.

Like her brother, Kennedy worked for the church over the decades, she said. Some of it was volunteer, some of it was for pay. She worked in the church’s school, served on committees, cooked for the church, set up programs, did decorations for holidays, babysat members’ children in the King Street home and “just about everything” else, she said.

“I was over there everyday for the last 25 years until he (the current pastor) came,” she said.

Kennedy doesn’t equivocate. She believes the church kicked her out because they don’t care for her anymore. She hasn’t been regularly attending or helping since Pastor Caesar Richburg arrived at Bethel A.M.E. in 2016, she said. Changes under Richburg pushed her away from the church, she said.

In years past, when she got behind on rent, the church worked with her to get caught up or made some sort of settlement, she said. Court records showed that Kennedy has had dozens of eviction proceedings filed against her since 2003, but all of them ended in various ways that allowed her to remain in the home.

The church took issue with her giving Johnson a place to stay, Kennedy said. She believes that factored into the eviction. Over the years, she’s taken in other people who needed a place to stay for a while, including college students, she said — they needed help so she gave help. There was never any issue before.

Being on a fixed income as the rent increased made it harder for her to pay rent over the years. When she first moved in, the rent was $650 a month, Kennedy said. The church had raised the rent to $1,150 by the time she was kicked out in July, according to Landmark Resources. That’s higher than the federal Housing and Urban Development department’s fair market rent of $990 for a two bedroom in downtown Columbia.

HUD’s fair market rent is often lower than the average rent of an area home, and Columbia’s rent prices have been on the rise even within the last year. In May 2020, the average rent for a Columbia two-bedroom apartment was $991, almost $200 less than the national average, according to apartmentlist.com. By August 2021, average rent for a two- bedroom increased to $1,274, which is now higher than the national average.

Beyond increased costs of housing, which outpaced wage growth in 2019, other factors contributed to Kennedy’s rising rent and the disparity between average rent in Columbia and HUD’s fair market rent.

Devine Street, just two blocks from Kennedy’s home, has had an influx of new luxury apartments in the last decade. The smaller two-bedroom living spaces at one of the apartment buildings start at about $1,600 a month. Other two bedrooms go for more than $2,000 a month. This inundation of more expensive housing has driven up rent for nearby residents.

Areas that were once more affordable attract young professionals who are looking for the same qualities in housing that the elderly are looking for, mainly walkability of the area and proximity to services, said Nicole Paluzzi, a housing attorney for Charleston Pro Bono. Young professionals with a better ability to pay for housing than the elderly in certain areas make it “ripe for gentrification.”

South Carolina and Columbia have no laws to control housing prices for the elderly or any other tenants, aside from a weak gouging statute, Paluzzi said. State courts have struck down efforts to help, including efforts by cities to give tax credits to developers who build affordable homes and higher priced homes together, often called mixed income developments.

Housing payment assistance is available, but for elderly people, who aren’t internet savvy, the help can be hard to find out about and to apply for.

Unless an elderly person has help getting assistance, “it doesn’t happen,” Paluzzi said.

Rental assistance created as part of COVID relief efforts is available for Richland County residents in situations like Kennedy’s. But the time it takes to get approved means an eviction can happen before a tenant receives help.

While her rent was below the average cost for a two bedroom in Columbia, the pandemic exacerbated the situation for Kennedy. Both her sons were out of work or could only find part-time jobs, Kennedy and Sean said. Other relatives needed help too. She tried to financially help them, which put her behind on her own rent, Kennedy said.

On that July day, Kennedy came back to what was once her home. She had been living with friends of her family in Forest Acres for a few days, she said. People had looted her belongings from the curb and rain had soaked what remained. She sat on an adorning brick wall at her brother’s home next door and smoked a cigarette.

She thought the church would have offered her more grace like it had in the past, she said.

“I just figured they’d give me a chance or make a plan, but he never said anything to me,” she said later about the pastor. “The church never spoke to me about nothing.” Nor did church officials ask “could they help me?”

When the pastor pulled up near the King Street house and stopped to talk to a reporter about the eviction and the pile of belongings, he asked Kennedy if she wanted to talk. She said she had nothing to say to him.

The church and the property

Looking at Kennedy’s belongings piled in the yard, Richburg said he didn’t expect the eviction to have such results and to linger for so long. The items were heaped outside for at least four days.

The pile had upset neighbors because of how bad it made the neighborhood look, he said. He was trying to get people on the phone to clean up as he spoke to a reporter.

Bethel A.M.E. is one of Columbia’s most historic and influential Black churches.

On the church’s website, Richburg is praised for modernizing the facilities and technology at Bethel A.M.E’s campus, including restoring the gym to a “viable space for use by the community and the ministries offered” and creating a new church website.

Richburg also created “Operation Andrews,” which is described as a local missionary initiative “to impact the city through family, friends, and co-workers sharing the ‘good news’ and inviting others to Christ.” The church has also advocated for COVID-19 vaccinations and hosted a testing site.

The church has “brought about healthy positive change in this community,” he said, and is “highly reputable” across South Carolina. He’s maintaining that reputation, Richburg said.

“I’ve asked the holy spirit for patience and tolerance since this (eviction) came up,” he said. “It’s okay with me because I don’t see the church has done anything wrong.”

If there was an issue with rent, Kennedy could have called him to discuss the problem, Richburg said. But he never received a call from her.

While he personally has a passion advocating for seniors and quality housing, housing is not a ministry of the church, Richburg said.

The church may help people in need through its benevolence ministry, but “the church is not in the property rental business,” Richburg said.

Dr. Caesar R. Richburg is Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Old Shandon neighborhood of Columbia.

Dr. Caesar R. Richburg is Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Old Shandon neighborhood of Columbia.

Laura Nichols of Landmark Resources said that the company had tried to communicate with Kennedy to help her stay in the home, but couldn’t get in touch with her on the phone or through notices. Posts about the eviction proceedings were put on her door.

“We would have bent over backwards to help her if we had known there was a need,” Nichols said. “All we knew is they didn’t respond and they didn’t pay.”

Court records showed that Landmark first filed for an eviction against Kennedy in 2017. The company tried to evict her at least eight times from 2017 to 2020 but all the evictions were settled out of court or dismissed, according to records.

Kennedy got behind on her rent late last year and hadn’t paid hardly any this year, Nichols said. She paid some back rent around May but it wasn’t enough to cover her debt. She was behind almost $10,000, Nichols said.

When Landmark Resources’ crew removed Kennedy’s items from the house, they did it with deputy oversight by the letter of the law, placing Kennedy’s belongings where they are legally required, which is along the curb, according to Nichols’ description. The looting and the scattering of the belongings after they left was out of the company’s control, she said.

Both Richburg and Nichols said that if Kennedy had reached out, they would have helped her.

Caretakers

Two years ago, Sean left his career as a BMW salesman to move in with his mother at the King Street house. Her age was showing and she needed help around the house, but the family couldn’t afford to hire someone to look after her, he said. He was 37, and their roles were reversing. He was now becoming the caretaker to the woman who had taken care of him for so long.

“This is all new for me and my brother,” Sean said. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to take care and monitor someone … especially when they always took care of what needed taken care of.”

He was getting into a care routine and ready to fit work into that schedule when the coronavirus hit. Job opportunities became scarce.

Without a paycheck, Sean couldn’t help on rent, or else he would have, he said. But he also didn’t know the problem was out of his mother’s control. He was on the couch in his mother’s house, studying for a test to become an insurance agent, when the movers came in to evict them. It took him by surprise.

He had seen the eviction notices, but his mother always told him she had it taken care of, Sean said. His mother had always worked out financial issues with the church and property managers since he was a kid. She was “prideful” and always handled her problems on her own, he said. His mother was looking into rental assistance, she had told him.

Sean said Pastor Richburg and Landmark Properties knew his mother needed help, but they weren’t willing to work with her.

The money they paid Landmark Resources around May was put toward late fees instead of rent by the company, Sean said. Nichols said the company wasn’t charging late fees.

But even if they had paid all the back rent, it wouldn’t have mattered, Sean said. His mother was paying month-to-month after a lease had expired, and the church just wanted her out of the house, Sean said. He suspects the church wants to sell the house or rent it for a higher price.

Richburg said an assessment of the house has to be done but he’s unsure what the church will do with the house in the future.

The Columbia branch of the NAACP is now looking into Kennedy’s eviction and how it might help her, according to Glover, the branch president.

The Columbia NAACP wants to see if the eviction was legal because a federal eviction moratorium was in place when Kennedy was kicked out, Glover said. The NAACP is also looking into other ways of helping her. The NAACP of Columbia can connect tenants to pro-bono housing attorneys and financial assistance.

Nichols, of Landmark Resources, said the moratorium applied to rentals with federally backed mortgages, and the King Street house didn’t have such a mortgage.

But no matter the legal status of eviction, Glover said kicking out a 76-old-woman from a home owned by a church was morally wrong. Glover used to attend Bethel A.M.E, knows Kennedy personally and knew about all the work she did for the church, she said. At times, she was lost for words when speaking about Kennedy’s eviction.

With the eviction, Sean said it feels like his mother is living in that moment almost 30 years ago after her husband and their father died. She lost an anchor in her life. This time it was her home.

Life in a pile

People stopped to rummage through the remnants of Kennedy’s life on the July day as the family talked to a reporter. One man drove a van with the seats taken out. Another brought a trailer. Sean and Johnson told them to go away, that there was nothing here for them.

A company hired by the church eventually came out and hauled all of Kennedy’s ruined belongings from the front of the King Street house she lived in for 25 years to the dump.

“Our whole life was in that pile,” Sean said.

After the eviction, Sean was able to move in with friends. Johnson is dealing with homelessness again, bouncing between places he can stay. Kennedy moved in with family in North Carolina.

Reached by phone after everything was taken away, Kennedy said she wasn’t angry or upset.

“Things happen,” she said. “I think my feelings were hurt more than anything else.”

She was glad she had her family to help her.

Willie Johnson was dealing with homeless before Elvira Kennedy invited him to stay with her in the house she rented on King Street.

Willie Johnson was dealing with homeless before Elvira Kennedy invited him to stay with her in the house she rented on King Street.

Anyone needing housing assistance can call the United Way of SC by dialing 211.



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