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Residents of Ayer housing development on edge after receiving notices of eviction

Jason Neal of Ayer, a 15-year resident of the Devenscrest housing complex, makes a point during an informational meeting led by State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, hosted by Stone Soup Kitchen Ministries, about the notices to vacate that some residents have received from the owner of the rental units. SUN/Julia Malakie
Jason Neal of Ayer, a 15-year resident of the Devenscrest housing complex, makes a point during an informational meeting led by State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, hosted by Stone Soup Kitchen Ministries, about the notices to vacate that some residents have received from the owner of the rental units. SUN/Julia Malakie
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AYER — About 100 residents of Devenscrest Village met with local legislators Friday night after receiving notices telling them to leave their homes in the next 60 days.

The notices they received, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge said, were not eviction notices — rather a notice of an intent to evict. An eviction, Eldridge said, is a legal document that must be filed in court. Tenants have the right to respond and fight it. The entire process could delay the process for six months to one year.

“Only a judge can evict you,” Eldridge said, urging people not to leave their homes and to stay united as a community.

To support residents, Eldridge has enlisted the support of Northeast Legal Aid. The firm is willing to provide free legal aid for the residents. A legal pad was passed around to collect the contact information of meeting attendees and ask them if they want legal help.

Eldridge said residents should continue to pay their rent as they fight. He also said residents should remain respectful when speaking to the management company. He also urged residents to document their living conditions saying it could be a defense against eviction.

State Rep. Sheila Harrington believes the new landlord, Devenscrest Management LLC, is looking to capitalize on Ayer’s increased cost of living.

“You’ve got strength in numbers so I don’t know how they would evict all of you,” Harrington said.

Devenscrest Management LLC released a statement to The Sun on Saturday afternoon, expressing excitement “for the opportunity to revitalize a long-neglected neighborhood in the beautiful and vibrant town of Ayer, Massachusetts.”

“Millions of dollars are being invested in badly needed repairs and renovations to every apartment,” Devenscrest Management said in the statement. “Every apartment will be insulated and have installed new appliances, new kitchens, new flooring, a new heating system and central air conditioning. These extensive repairs and renovations cannot be safely performed while occupied with residents.”

According to management, no one is being evicted “or at this time will have an eviction on their record from Devenscrest Apartments.”

The notice, served on Wednesday, states the tenants’ residency is terminated as of Sept. 30. Devenscrest Management points out this provides more than 75 days for tenants to relocate.

“Residents have been given a Notice of Termination of Tenancy giving them in excess of 75 days to relocate,” Devenscrest Management said. “This is more than twice the amount of time the law requires be provided. As we have stated to residents with whom we have spoken, we will work with those residents who require additional time to find a new home. Devencrest Management is committed to working closely and cooperatively with residents through this time of transition.”

Erica Spann, a member of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District School Committee, emphasized she is following the situation closely and that the children and families matter.

If families move to a residence in another community, the district cannot legally provide transportation costs for students to stay in the school district. However, the district could provide it for families that find themselves homeless.

Susan Brown, a six-year resident of Devenscrest Village, said she received the quit notice on Wednesday in her mailbox and again Friday through First-Class Mail.

She was “in shock, to say the least.”

Brown is a single mother, reliant on her disability pay from Veterans’ Affairs. Devenscrest Village was one of the only affordable options in the area, she said.

“The people who live here don’t have a lot of money or resources to just up and leave. I don’t have any family here except my children. There is no one for me to fall back on,” Brown said. “I’m more concerned for the elderly in my neighborhood and those with small children.”

In a conversation before the meeting, Liz Warwick told The Sun the affordability was a big draw. Although she has had to get “creative” she has managed to make things work with five people under one roof in a two-bedroom apartment.

Several residents who spoke to The Sun are concerned the company will impose steep new requirements for those looking to live there. They said they have been told by the new landlord, Devenscrest Management LLC, they will need to have a minimum annual income of $72,000 as a single person or $84,000 with dual incomes.

Residents also said they have been told the monthly rent will increase, costing $1,800 to $2,100. Residents who spoke to The Sun offered varying accounts of how much they currently pay, with figures ranging from $875 to $950 a month.

Eldridge agreed the new income requirements were unfeasible.

After the meeting, Eldridge confirmed he had spoken with the company’s legal representation. He also said as legislators, he, Harrington and state Rep. Dan Sena could bring the company to the table.

Some residents, including Brown, feel the change in ownership has been a contributing factor. She said the former owner Larry Tocci worked with tenants on a case-by-case basis, hence the range in rent costs.

“He said he didn’t want us to get evicted when someone took over,” Brown said. “His hope and understanding was whoever took over the property would slowly redo the buildings and not make all the tenants homeless. He knew that there was not enough housing for us all for that to happen.”

Standing in his driveway just past dusk, Juan Mayorga agreed. He said Tocci was a man who cared. When he needed a place to live, he was given his childhood home. Having fallen on hard times, Tocci waived the two-week waiting period and the background check.

While Mayorga has worked hard to always pay rent on time, he said Tocci would allow him to catch up. He concurred evicting people was not in his nature. He said he will not only lose his home but a community he has been a part of for over 30 years.

Residents including Warwick and Mayorga pointed to neighbors who operate certified home day cares in the neighborhood — helping the parents who work.

Eldridge believes the town of Ayer has done a good job of supporting affordable housing projects but said this situation underscores the need to do more.

“It’s really important for people broadly in this region to think that if they are opposing an affordable housing project or not advocating for an affordable housing project then this kind of reality is going to happen more and more,” Eldridge said. “Big picture we need to create more affordable housing across Massachusetts otherwise rising real estate prices are just going to continue on this trend.”