Sixty-nine years of age. A time for grandchildren, scrapbooks and catching up on neglected novels.
For Joanne Berry, it’s a time for seven-hour shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts, pinching pennies and eviction.
When I spoke to Berry this week, she was packing up her belongings and furniture from her second-floor apartment at Deer Haven Preserve, one of the “workforce” apartment complexes that went up off Wellington Road a decade ago.
She’s undergone the humiliation of a yellow eviction sticker on her door, and asking her grown children for money.
“I’ve been crying all day at work. I get so upset. When I get a chance to think, it bothers me,” she said.
Berry is one of many Americans who tiptoe on the edge of a financial cliff — where a single misstep can trigger a landslide of bills, past-due notices and homelessness.
“It’s not enjoyable for us at all. It’s one of the hardest parts of the job,” said Chris Schleyer, president of Elm Grove Realty, which manages 75 condos at Deer Haven for an out-of-state owner, PEP LLC.
But at the end of the day, Schleyer has to ensure the rent revenue keeps flowing, and Berry just doesn’t have the income, he said.
Here’s Berry’s story:
She said she grew up in Methuen, Mass., in a comfortable middle-class family. She held all sorts of jobs — social worker, nursing home assistant, electronics assembly, home care for the elderly. She walks slowly upstairs, which she blames on a bum knee, and the smoker’s rasp in her voice contributes to an endearing grandmotherly persona.
Berry said she left a 25-year-long abusive relationship in 2014, and she hasn’t been able to recover financially from the divorce.
She gets a $604 monthly check from Social Security and clears $239 a week from her job as a crew leader at Dunkin’ Donuts.
In February, she moved into Deer Haven with a roommate, the 46-year-old daughter of a school friend. The monthly rent of $1,050 would not be a problem if they split it, Berry figured.
Within days, the roommate’s 19-year-old son moved in, Berry said. They eventually moved out.
Berry said she didn’t realize her roommate, identified in eviction proceedings as Katherine Bradley, had not paid rent for May, June and July.
Schleyer, whose company controls 700 apartments in Manchester, said roommate problems are the single biggest factor in evictions. A couple, a group of friends, or even strangers will rent an apartment together. Each signs a lease, someone moves out, and the remaining tenant is stuck with the rent.
In mid-July, Berry received an eviction notice. In early August, she paid $1,316 toward back rent, but the balance was still more than a month’s rent, which meant the eviction would go forward, Schleyer said.
He faulted Berry for not “working with them,” and stopping communication after Aug. 9.
But by his reckoning, Berry had come up with $1,316 even after she received an eviction notice. More experienced tenants won’t pay anything and string out a landlord with court delays and appeals for at least a couple of months.
Berry said she was reaching out to friends and family to try to raise the balance, which had grown to $1,971 by Aug. 21 the day she appeared in landlord-tenant court.
A judge ruled that Berry could stay if she could raise the money by the end of the day.
She didn’t have the money. She didn’t have a lawyer. She didn’t ask for more time. She didn’t appeal. “I was a nervous wreck; I couldn’t think,” she said.
She turned to Manchester City Welfare. No help there.
In a Notice of Decision that Berry shared with me, her caseworker said the apartment was more than what the city would pay for a single person. The caseworker also wrote that the city won’t pay back-rent, and the city would need seven days to verify Berry’s application.
“Your landlord, Diana at Elm Grove, has indicated that failure to pay the agreed upon amount by today, in full, will result in the eviction proceeding,” the caseworker wrote. Given those factors, the caseworker did not move forward with the application.
He gave Berry a list of less expensive apartments, rooming houses and social service agencies that might help with a security deposit.
In the end, Schleyer said Berry’s income wasn’t high enough. The rental payment, he noted, does not include heat or utilities.
“The problem is, she doesn’t maintain the ability to pay rent going forward,” he said.
Berry said it would have been a struggle, but she could have afforded the apartment. But as she packed her belongings and waited for movers to put her furniture into storage, Berry said she wouldn’t stay if Elm Grove changed its mind.
She spent a couple nights in her car, parked in a rest area with her rottweiller, an emotional support animal. Now she stays at the home of a recently made friend, a woman with three children.
The turmoil has meant a few lost days at work, which will her hurt her finances further.
“I never in my life (have been evicted). I never even went to welfare,” she said.