Legal aid affirms elderly tenant’s right to live-in help after surgery, avoids eviction

Woman standing next to painting of Jesus on wall.
Sonja’s faith and devotion to her family are the first things you notice when you visit her home.

Sonja has lived in her government-subsidized one-bedroom apartment for seven years. Because she deals with severe mobility problems that restrict her ability to walk, Sonja chose the apartment for its proximity to local stores. “I had no trouble getting the apartment. The problem came in after we changed property managers. I never had anything against my record. Nothing.”

When Sonja’s knee problems got so bad that she needed help with basic tasks like cooking and laundry, she wanted her adult daughter to provide that help. The process to certify a need for live-in assistance was cumbersome and difficult to understand. In spite of her efforts to meet the landlord’s requirements, the property manager at Sonja’s subsidized apartment tried to evict her. A civil legal aid attorney with Pisgah Legal Services helped Sonja stay in her home and get the help she needs from her daughter.

Quiet life in North Carolina

Sonja has lived in her light-filled apartment in Rutherfordton, NC for seven years. It is decorated with photographs and mementos. Sonja loves her quiet life in the small North Carolina foothills town, where she raised her children.

In 2017, Sonja’s 23-year-old grandson died suddenly. The rules of her apartment complex limited overnight visitors to three nights per month, but she secured permission from the property manager for her daughter to live with her for six weeks following the young man’s death. After the six-week permitted stay, Sonja’s daughter continued to visit frequently because the visits were a comfort to them in their grief, and because Sonja needed the extra help around the house. Her severe knee problems were getting worse, and her daughter helped her with everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning and running errands.

“My daughter had come here to help me because I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t walk with my left leg hardly at all,” Sonja said. “Her son had died just a few months before. She’s been with me through everything.”

When Sonja’s knee surgery meant she needed live-in help, the law was on her side, but without a lawyer she was at real risk of eviction. Experiencing debilitating health issues and the death of her grandson, Sonja sought the support of her daughter and doctors. She was met with multiple threats of eviction from her property manager.

I can’t think of a word that would describe the way I feel about [my attorney] Nikki and what all she’s done. When she gets in something, she digs in it and works on it. I’ll always count on her as a blessing from the Lord.

— Sonja

After the six-week authorized stay was complete, Sonja was careful to never have her daughter stay overnight more than 3 nights during any 30-day period. Yet, in early 2018, the property manager wrongly accused Sonja of violating visitation rules, claiming her daughter was still living with her.

women with walker in apartment.
Furniture is comfortably arranged to accommodate her walker, which she needs to get around at 69.

Sonja vividly recalls one interaction between her daughter and property manager: “She looked straight at my daughter. It was six weeks after my grandson had died and [the property manager] told her that she ought to be over him by now. We were doing everything that we were supposed to do. My daughter has a home bought and paid for. She doesn’t have to live here. She came here to help me.”

Tenants with disabilities have legal rights that can protect them from eviction and enable them to get help with daily activities – but only when enforced in a court of law. Too often, though, courts don’t uphold these rights either because the tenant doesn’t see their problem as legal, and therefore doesn’t seek legal help, or because they simply do not have access to legal representation. All too often, people like Sonja lose their cases in court – not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they don’t have the legal information and help they need to advocate for their rights.