Resident of public housing keeps her trees, but worries about eviction

Sharon Kelley, 83, stands next to an Arizona cypress tree that the Villa Alegre Management and the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority told her she had to remove Friday. She has since been told that she can keep her trees. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Sharon Kelley, 83, knew the dangers of leaving her back patio bare. A boy with a large rock and a strong arm broke one of her windows. Another time a drifter made his way onto the patio, which is just outside her bedroom.

“I looked up and he was standing by my door,” she said.

Kelley lives in a publicly subsidized unit at the Villa Alegre Apartments off West Alameda Street. She said she received permission from the manager seven years ago to plant trees on the patio.

Two Arizona cypress and five Australian pines became a shady barrier that provided her with privacy and protection.

Five managers of the complex have since come and gone. None objected to Kelley’s trees. They knew Villa Alegre’s playground for children is right behind her patio, literally a stone’s throw away. And Kelley, a master gardener, made sure the trees were healthy and trimmed.

But Friday evening, as the long Labor Day weekend began, management changed its position. Kelley found a memo posted on her door that she interpreted as a threat to her remaining at the complex.

It began: “Villa Alegre Management and the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority have agreed to postpone signing your new rental agreement until you have removed the trees, bushes, etc. from your back patio that you planted by altering the weed barrier without previous approval from management.”

The memo went on to say that Kelley had seven days to uproot her plants and trees or she would receive a notice of noncompliance. These notices can be a basis for eviction proceedings. The memo was signed by James Edwards of Monarch Properties Inc., which manages the complex for the housing authority.

Panicked that she would be thrown out, Kelley hired a crew to uproot the trees Tuesday morning.

She also called me. I had written two columns about Kelley and other residents of Villa Alegre being threatened with sanctions unless they removed plants and flowers from the front and sides of their apartments. Neither the housing authority nor Monarch had objected to the trees in Kelley’s back patio during that first confrontation.

After the columns ran, the housing authority received heavy criticism. It dropped its attempt to remove the plants.

Kelley had been one of my sources. Though I had not identified her, management knew she had spoken out.

She told me the housing authority’s new edict directed at her was retaliatory.

I phoned Ed Romero, executive director of the housing authority, as soon as his office reopened after the holiday weekend. He didn’t answer, so I left him a message asking about his agency telling Kelley she wouldn’t receive another lease unless she removed her trees.

Within half an hour, Kelley said, the property manager ran to her unit, frantically waving his arms and telling her work crew to leave the trees in place. There was no need to remove them after all, he said.

Workers had already uprooted one of Kelley’s tall Arizona cypress trees. They replanted it. Property manager Edwards then directed the trimming of other trees.

Kelley said Edwards’ involvement was gratuitous. She hires a crew twice a year to handle trimming.

After the roller-coaster weekend of worry and relief, Kelley decided she no longer would be an anonymous source.

Once a Radio City Rockette and a figure skater who toured internationally, her competitive nature was reignited. She told me to print her complaint of retaliation and use her name.

I asked Romero for his comment or response. In an emailed statement thick with government jargon, he said couldn’t discuss Kelley’s situation until she provided the housing authority with a formal release.

Romero wrote: “I understand from your comments that the tenant may feel this is retaliation for some type of participation and would welcome the opportunity to fully describe actions that are required by HUD, the Authority as the Voucher issuer, the Authority as the general partner, our lenders, other oversight entities and Monarch as it relates to providing services to this particular client. Upon receipt of a release I will provide you with a full description of actions and reasons for those actions related to this particular client.”

Neighbors called or emailed Kelley to congratulate her on winning the day. Residents of Villa Alegre know how important the trees are to Kelley. She was too exhausted to see most well-wishers.

Kelley said she is afraid of what’s ahead.

Her lease expires this month. She’s kept her trees, but says she worries about management finding another pretext to stop her from receiving a new rental agreement.

“Living here is filled with fear, intimidation, harassment, disrespect,” Kelley said.

But after all the turmoil of summertime, she still wants to stay.

Being 83 and poor, she said, doesn’t leave her with many options.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.