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City inspectors' abrupt demand that Alexander Apartments tenants vacate their homes -- 10 days before Christmas -- threw the Little Rock residents into turmoil that would take them months to get over, the former residents said.

"Out of nowhere, we were told they were cutting off our utilities," Melody Branch testified in court Tuesday. "I felt like I was falling."

In December 2015, the fire chief had suddenly pronounced the Colonel Glenn Road complex as unsafe to live in, after months of back-and-forth between the apartment owners and code inspectors and fire marshals over the condition of the 7.4-acre property.

Authorities reported that the 17-building complex was teeming with health and safety violations like mold, exposed wiring, broken smoke detectors, structural flaws brought on by water leaks, and exposed sewage. A dead cat was found in one vacant apartment.

But the order that tenants leave their apartments within a week did not reassure them that their city was looking out for them or was concerned about their safety, a Pulaski County circuit judge heard Tuesday from a handful of former tenants who were brought together to fight the closure demand.

The former Alexander Apartments residents testified that the prospect of having to find new homes infected them with sleep-stealing anxiety, deep depression and blood pressure-raising fear as they struggled to figure out where to go with their families and how to pay for it.

Judge Alice Gray blocked the closure about a week after residents were told to leave, when a lawsuit by the apartment owners and the tenants challenged the city's order to vacate.

Gray has since ruled that the city's evacuation procedure was unconstitutional because it did not provide a means for the owners or tenants to challenge the vacate command. She has ordered Little Rock to pay damages to the owners and members of the tenants group. City officials have not said whether they will appeal.

Gray concluded a two-day trial Tuesday, three days before the second anniversary of the closure order, on the damages question after taking testimony from the tenants-group members.

The judge said she'll accept by the end of next month final written arguments from the sides about how much the city should pay, and her plan is to rule sometime in mid-February.

Representatives of the apartment owners testified that they're out an estimated $414,759 to $589,692. The city's expert -- Little Rock economist James Metzger, owner of Histecon Associates research and consulting firm -- said Tuesday that his review of Alexander's operations estimated the losses at $143,976.

The tenants-group members' estimates of their losses were often vague and seemed more meager than those of the Alexander owners. They said they had to pay for things like $15 car rides, $150 in moving vans, $1,300 for a month's rent plus a deposit.

All said the city inspections worried them more than what the inspectors found or even the poor condition of their homes.

"I was scared because there was no way I could come up with rent and a deposit" on a new apartment, Branch told the judge, describing how she earned about $500 per week selling cellphones.

With no car and three kids, the Alexander Apartments unit was affordable for her and her partner, and it was convenient to get to both her job and the grocery store. Best of all, she told the judge, her oldest son was thriving in his elementary school's speech and occupational therapy programs.

Being told to vacate triggered her deepest fears -- failing to care for her children, Branch said.

"My biggest fear is being homeless with my kids," she said, tearing up as she recalled how she endured having no place to live sometimes while growing up. "I vowed to myself that I would never go through that again."

Finding a new place to live took about three months given that bad credit limited her options. She said she had to enroll her son in a different school that hasn't been as effective for the boy, slowing his progress.

"It hurt me because I want to see my kids succeed and get the best schooling available," she said.

Representing Branch were attorney Kyla Farler and law student Hannah Pender, with the consumer protection clinic at the W.H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, directed by attorney Amy Pritchard.

Former tenants Carolyn Ford, Ingram Murphy and Linda Wheeler were represented by lawyers Dustin Duke, Riley Cross and Jason Auer, with Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services.

Metro on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: Tenants testify about order to go

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