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Where Manchester police urge evictions, landlords see headaches

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 09. 2017 10:07PM
Manchester police set up for a raid at a rooming house in September. The police have been sending letters to landlords and homeowners where drug raids have taken place to warn them about a nuisance law. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER -- It happens about once a month. Police show up at a suspected drug dealer's home, armed with a search warrant. They break down the door, tear the place apart, find drugs and make an arrest.

And within a few days, police send a certified letter to the listed owner of the property, talking about drug activity and warning that state law makes it a crime for anyone to maintain a "common nuisance" where "drug-dependent persons" use, keep or sell illegal drugs.

Since October 2015, Manchester police have sent 35 letters to landlords or homeowners where drug raids or other police activity has taken place. They range from landlords with multiple properties to a since-convicted drug dealer who owned a house, sold drugs out of it and pleaded guilty to the nuisance law and drug-dealing in late October.

The New Hampshire Sunday News obtained copies of the letters from Manchester police under the state's Right-to-Know Law.

Police said landlords often have no idea that crimes are taking place on their property, but they add that landlords should do a better job managing their properties.

Any landlord who gets a letter should contact police to discuss the address, said police spokesman Lt. Brian O'Keefe in an email. The department recommends that landlords initiate eviction proceedings if the tenant is the target of a drug investigation.

"Most importantly take an active role in managing the address," O'Keefe wrote.

He called the letters "another tool for us to use while dealing with issues regarding specific problematic properties scattered throughout the city."

Landlords who have received the nuisance letters, however, express frustration with a system where evictions - even of drug dealers - prove risky, time-consuming and expensive. And they say they get little cooperation from police.

Three who received letters from police agreed to be interviewed.

All say they realize police have a difficult job and that the drug epidemic is real.

But they said they are the last to know about drug dealing in their apartments, and they question what they could do to stop drug activity even if they did know.

"The landlords' hands are tied," said Debbie Valente, the director of a landlord advocacy organization, the New Hampshire Property Owners Association, whose center city property was raided this past May.

Hsiu Chang, manager of Formosa Co. LLC, which owns 19 apartment buildings in the city, said, "We need strategies. Tell us Step 1, Step 2, Step 3."

He received a letter about a year ago. A man was arrested during a raid, but his family remains in the apartment, Chang said. He questions what would happen if he tried to evict the remaining family members; they are paying rent, and a judge would likely side with them, Chang said.

In fact, all three landlords said the suspected tenants kept their apartments in good shape and paid their rent.

The Sunday News asked for letters over a two-year period. Thirty-five were sent between Oct. 15, 2015, and Nov. 6, 2017. 

Nearly all the symbols on the map below represent houses or apartments where Manchester police have executed search warrants for drugs since October 2015. Two of the locations involve large rooming houses where Manchester authorities say multiple overdoses and deaths have occurred. The red symbol represents a surveillance, raid and arrest; the yellow symbol represents a surveillance and raid; and the blue symbol represents letters only.

Two of the letters did not involve raids or arrests. They were sent to owners of the rooming houses at Pine and High streets, nicknamed the Abbot and the Abbey. The letters cite the large number of overdoses, deaths and police calls to the properties.

Owners of the two rooming houses did not respond to requests for an interview.

Another letter went to Paul Bennett, the criminal defense lawyer who pleaded guilty last month to the common nuisance charge and to selling crystal methamphetamine out of his Linden Street home. One landlord, Hooksett resident Dorothy Close, received three letters.

To win a nuisance conviction, police have to prove the landlord was aware of the drug dealing, police said.

Landlords complained about damage that police do to their rental properties during a drug raid. And they complain that police will say little after the raid.

Normally, police use battering rams and percussion grenades when they enter apartments, causing at least $1,000 in damage just to get inside, the landlords said.

"The damage is unbelievable," said Valente, who had to replace a door and door jamb after a raid. Why, Valente asked, couldn't police call the landlord and ask for a key?

"At times we do use keys but normally the fewer people who know what we are doing the better. Makes it safer for our personnel," O'Keefe wrote.

Landlords said they also get little follow-up information from police.

Richard Bartlett owns a building on Laurel Street that was raided twice. The first time, he didn't get a letter. He said the tenant was back out on the street quickly after the raid and arrest.

Police didn't explain what was going on. Short of him sitting in court, he doesn't know how he'd find out.

"How did the court release him, and they want to hold me accountable? I don't understand that," Bartlett said. "None of it makes any sense, putting it on the backs of the landlord."

After the first arrest, the man's wife and daughter took over the lease, Bartlett said. They moved out after the second arrest.

If he had moved to evict, he said, he would have lost three months' rent, and the tenants might get mad and start damaging the apartment.

Reader Poll

  • When should illegal drugs be grounds for an eviction?
  • On suspicion
  • 8%
  • If charged
  • 18%
  • On conviction
  • 61%
  • Never
  • 10%
  • Ambivalent
  • 2%
  • Total Votes: 2437

"That's the reality. You're the one with no rights," he said.

Chang also said situations can be difficult. He received a letter about a raid involving a tenant of three years. The man of the family was arrested. A woman and three children remain.

"Why do I want to fight a family with kids?" he asked. He also wonders if he could break a lease because of an arrest. He said his leases do not forbid drug use or possession on his property.

The letter encourages landlords to contact police. But Chang said police did not share details of the arrest and told him to go look up the case himself.

O'Keefe said the department does not reach out to landlords other than to tell them about the situation through the letter. "All court proceedings are public record, and they can find the information if they desire to do so," he said.

Homes of drug dealers have drawn the notice of Mayor-elect Joyce Craig.

In an email during her campaign, Craig said the city needs to address and identify "problem properties" to address the opioid crisis.

During her ride-alongs with police and fire officials, they pointed out a handful of properties, some vacant, where they are repeatedly called for fights, overdoses and other disturbances.

"It was clear to me that the city was spending a lot of resources addressing issues at these particular properties," Craig said. "All problem properties need to be identified, timely communication with landlords needs to occur, issues need to be addressed and rules need to be enforced. The city needs to work cooperatively with landlords, tenants and public health and safety officials to make our neighborhoods safer."

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