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story.lead_photo.caption Joseph Wilhite of Fulton is locked in a battle with the Fulton Housing Authority over what he and his lawyer claim was an illegal eviction. Photo by Helen Wilbers / News Tribune.

Former residents of the Fulton Housing Authority allege the agency has been using unusual, unfair and illegal eviction practices including locking tenants out of their units.

The practice of a landlord changing a tenant's locks, known as a "self-help eviction," is illegal under Missouri law, according to a housing attorney who focuses on tenant rights. One former tenant brought a lawsuit against the FHA over an alleged self-help eviction in July.

Fulton Housing Authority Director Chris Garrett was put on paid administrative leave Aug. 28 while the FHA board conducts an ongoing internal investigation into the complaints brought forth by three tenants and alleged in the lawsuit, FHA board chairman Tim Wilkerson said Wednesday.

According to Wilkerson, if Garrett was indeed changing tenants' locks without going through the eviction process in court, these actions weren't in line with FHA policy.

"We didn't know (Garrett was doing this) — we were in the dark," Wilkerson said.

In a separate executive session last week, the board installed longtime FHA maintenance technician Thomas Branch as an interim director.

The FHA is Fulton's public housing agency. It owns, operates and maintains 200 public housing units throughout the city limits of Fulton, which are available to low-income, elderly and disabled individuals. The agency is funded and overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to Wilkerson, the board has notified HUD of Garrett's suspension and the investigation.

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Homeless and hurting

Garrett, hired as executive director in September 2019, has consistently declined to comment on the allegations. But the Fulton Sun has heard from several current and former Fulton Housing Authority residents about what they describe as unusual or unfair evictions by the FHA.

Two agreed to speak on the record about their experiences.

Joseph Wilhite first contacted the Fulton Sun in early August. At the time, Wilhite was living in a public park in Fulton after being forced out of his FHA home on Westminster Avenue following a run-in with police. Wilhite moved to Fulton from Louisiana about a year ago, and all his friends and family in town also live on FHA property — meaning that after Wilhite was removed from his home, he couldn't stay with any of them without risking trespassing charges.

Wilhite's troubles with the FHA started July 12 when Wilhite got into a heated argument on FHA property and someone called the cops. A Fulton Police Department probable cause statement states a resident of Sycamore Street told police Wilhite threatened to assault him and kidnap two children on the scene. (Wilhite disputes that account, describing the situation as a verbal argument in which he had no intention of hurting anyone.)

The Fulton Police Department pulled over Wilhite while he was driving without a license in a car belonging to a friend of his. According to the PC statement, they found a glass pipe with methamphetamine residue inside the vehicle. Wilhite claims the pipe was not his. In a voluntary statement given to police, Wilhite wrote his friend Mark Howard (a fellow FHA resident who was a passenger in the car with Wilhite) told him the pipe was left in the vehicle by someone else. Howard has not been charged in connection with the incident.

Though Wilhite was arrested that day, no charges were filed and he was ultimately released.

July 23, the Fulton Housing Authority delivered a notice of lease termination to Wilhite. The notice cited Wilhite's alleged criminal activity. It gave Wilhite three days to vacate the premises and forbade him from returning to FHA property for five years.

"Fulton Housing Authority will be changing the locks and taking possession of the unit to protect your property as well as ours on July 26," the notice added. "We will dispose of any unclaimed property left in the unit."

Wilhite claimed he approached Garrett to explain the situation.

"He told me if I had proof I wasn't being charged, I could stay," Wilhite told the Fulton Sun on Aug. 6.

Wilhite said he submitted the aforementioned voluntary statement and didn't hear anything back from Garrett. The FPD did not respond to a request for comment; Garrett also refused to speak with the Fulton Sun.

"Thursday and Friday, I heard nothing," Wilhite said. "I'm thinking things are good."

Monday morning — July 27 — Wilhite headed out to get McDonald's. When he returned home, his key didn't work. The locks had been changed, he said.

"I have no clothes; my medications are in my house," Wilhite said, adding he has health conditions that cause him great pain if he can't take his meds.

Wilhite claimed Garrett wouldn't meet with him again. Wilhite eventually got into contact with housing lawyer Mary Mueller of Mid-Missouri Legal Services, who negotiated with the FHA on his behalf. The FHA agreed to let Wilhite move back in, Mueller said.

"I'm not sure (the FHA) understood what the eviction procedure should have been," Mueller said.

Before accepting the FHA's offer, Wilhite said he was afraid if he moved back in, the process would start all over again — and it did.

On Aug. 7, the FHA filed an unlawful detainer eviction with the court. An unlawful detainer eviction can be filed for if a tenant continues occupying property after a lease has ended.

The eviction documents served to Wilhite on Aug. 13 mention the July 23 lease termination notice but claim that on July 27, Wilhite was given an extra five days to vacate the Westminster Avenue house. The eviction notice also states Wilhite is $212 behind on rent and $47.32 behind on utility payments.

By Aug. 24, Wilhite still wasn't sure where he'd go if he lost the eviction case, aside from another park. He said the stress is worsening his health — he limps visibly and said his whole left arm had gone numb.

"I can't live like that," he said. "If I get put out, I'll be dead in two weeks."

The prosecuting attorney's office filed charges against Wilhite for the July 12 incident on Aug. 19 — Wilhite faces charges of fourth-degree assault and driving without a license, both misdemeanors. Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Wilson declined to comment on the reason for the delay in filing charges, but said generally speaking, such a delay may occur when an investigation is ongoing.

Mueller is defending Wilhite against the eviction in court; no hearings have yet been held.

Additionally, on Aug. 25, Mueller filed a lawsuit against the FHA on behalf of Howard, whose lease was also terminated following the July 12 incident. No eviction documents against Howard were ever filed in court, according to CaseNet.

The lawsuit names both the FHA and Garrett as defendants, and claims on July 31, Garrett "unlawfully and without notice entered and changed the locks at the premises and destroyed (Howard's) personal property without lawful cause." The lawsuit describes this as an illegal self-help eviction. It states Howard was unable to regain access to the residence or his personal property. A separate court filing by Mueller describes Howard as a 58-year-old with limited speech and mobility.

The lawsuit asks for $50,000 in damages (or an amount the court finds fair and reasonable) and for Howard's access to his residence and possessions to be restored.

Mueller declined further comment on Howard and Wilhite's cases, citing the pending litigation. Howard could not be reached for comment.

 

Pregnant woman evicted

Samantha Neal, of Fulton, claims she was also left homeless over an arrest — and she wasn't even the person arrested.

According to Neal, in November 2019, she was pregnant and nearing her due date. She left her Fulton Housing Authority residence and went to stay with family in Columbia, and told a friend where the key was so he could let herself into the residence and care for Neal's pet.

Neal said while she was away, and without her knowledge, that person engaged in "illegal activity" in her home and was arrested. A search of Missouri CaseNet for the name given by Neal shows no charges dating to November 2019, indicating the man may never have been charged. Regardless, FHA notified her she was being booted over the arrest on her property, she said — which, under the standard FHA lease agreement, the FHA is allowed to do.

"I do understand the reason for the eviction, I just have a problem with how it happened," Neal said.

CaseNet does not show any eviction proceedings filed in the case — suggesting the notice might have been a lease termination notice, like in Wilhite's case, rather than an eviction notice. A lease termination notice is not filed through the courts; if a tenant fails to vacate the property once a lease is terminated, the landlord must file an eviction and follow certain steps to lawfully force the tenant out (see "Legality," below).

Through an attorney, the FHA declined to provide copies of any eviction or lease termination notices served to Neal.

"Records pertaining to any current or former tenants of Fulton Housing Authority are exempt from disclosure pursuant to Section 610.021(8), RSMo., as they contain information relating to welfare cases of identifiable individuals," attorney Jacque Brazas wrote Aug. 31.

Neal rushed home and discovered her locks had been changed. The stress caused her to enter premature labor, she said.

"I went to the hospital that night and was at the hospital for over a week," Neal said.

During that time, FHA agreed to let her back into her unit and gave her a new key. But when she arrived, she was met with a new notice giving her two days to clear out of the property, she said.

"On my second day home, I answered the door with my breast pump hooked up, and they told me I had until maintenance got there to get my stuff out," Neal said.

Neal said she didn't request a hearing, something she may have been entitled to under the terms of her lease: "I don't understand how all of that works." Instead, the single mother scrambled to get her family's belongings out of the unit before maintenance arrived.

"I lost a lot of stuff," Neal said.

She ended up at Our House's family shelter , and in mid-August said she'd applied for an apartment for herself and her children. Neal said she's now considering legal action against the FHA.

"At first I was like, 'This is what it is,' but people told me I shouldn't put up with that kind of treatment," Neal said. "I don't want to see anyone else go through this."

 

Legality

When a landlord changes a tenant's locks to prevent them from reentering the property, that's called a "self-help eviction." And it's illegal in Missouri, plain and simple, according to housing lawyer Eric Qualls. Qualls is now a solo attorney based out of Kansas City; back in 2018 he presented a free class on tenant rights and responsibilities here in Fulton.

"For them to change the locks and kick (Wilhite) out without court process, that's not legal," Qualls said. "That's wrongful eviction, in my opinion, or at least a forcible detainer."

Sec. 441.233, RSMo, lays down the law: "A landlord or its agent who removes or excludes a tenant or the tenant's personal property from the premises without judicial process and court order, or causes such removal or exclusion, or causes the removal of the doors or locks to such premises, shall be deemed guilty of forcible entry and detainer."

As for the reasoning behind the lease terminations, that's a little more complicated.

The FHA's standard lease agreement lays out situations in which the FHA may — but is not required to — terminate a lease.

Those include any criminal activity by the tenant, a household member or guest, on or off FHA premises, that threatens the "health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment" of FHA property by other residents or employees; and any drug-related criminal activity. The lease agreement specifies that no criminal conviction or even arrest has to take place so long as the "FHA believes, in good faith, that a breach of this section has occurred."

Pertinent to Neal's case, the tenant doesn't even have to have knowledge of the criminal activity by the guest or family member — though the lease agreement says the tenant can escape eviction if the tenant agrees in writing to "refuse to allow such person on the premises" in the future. The lease agreement does not lay out a minimum length of notice for a lease termination.

Regardless of the circumstances of a lease termination, if a tenant doesn't leave by the end of the notice period, under Missouri law, there are steps a landlord must take. They have to file with the court to begin eviction proceedings. Missouri law requires the tenant be notified an eviction lawsuit has been filed; the tenant must also be given an opportunity to be heard in court.

And even if the court finds in the landlord's favor, the tenant still has 10 days to appeal the judgment — during which they can stay in the property, as long as they post a bond with the court. If the tenant doesn't appeal, or the appeal fails, the court will issue a writ of execution and order the sheriff or other law enforcement to execute the judgment, Qualls said.

"Changing the locks is still illegal," Qualls emphasized.

 

The investigation

FHA board chairman Wilkerson said locking tenants out doesn't track with FHA policy — and Garrett's alleged actions weren't taken with the board's backing.

"There are rules and regulations that everyone who's employed by us is supposed to follow," he said Wednesday. "Every executive director understands what their responsibility is. We have no idea what went wrong."

But the board is trying to find out, with the help of attorneys, Wilkerson said.

"We're looking at each tenant that was evicted," he said. "If proper procedures weren't followed, we'll have to address that."

Even if the FHA board deems proper lease terminations and eviction procedures weren't followed, that doesn't mean the tenants are off the hook, Wilkerson explained.

"Tenants are required to follow their lease agreement," he said. "If a tenant doesn't abide by the lease agreement, they can be evicted."

In other words, the eviction cases in question may move forward — through the proper channels, with an eviction filed in court and a court hearing.

"We'll follow the proper procedures," Wilkerson said.

The next Fulton Housing Authority Board of Commissioners meeting is scheduled for Oct. 14 at 5:30 p.m. at the John C. Harris Community Center.

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