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Public housing residents can keep shrubbery — for now

July 19, 2019 GMT

Each morning this week, senior citizens living at the Villa Alegre Apartments had the same sinking feeling.

They feared it would be the day that management followed through with its announced plan to tear out their shrubs and flowers.

Then work crews stood down. No plants were touched.

Residents haven’t won this battle, but they have extended it. At least for the short term, the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority has retreated.

“There’s a freeze on any work. We have no instruction to take out anyone’s plants,” Ed Romero, executive director of the housing authority, said Thursday in an interview.

Romero’s office and Monarch Properties Inc., an Albuquerque company that manages the apartment complex on West Alameda Street, received many complaints after I wrote my Monday column about their plan to uproot tenants’ shrubbery.

“They’ve caused a lot of hurt,” said one man who lives at Villa Alegre. “Older people who were happy because they had a few flowers are afraid.”

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Romero told me it was best not to act quickly in removing the plants. His comment was strange considering that James Edwards, property manager at Villa Alegre, notified residents by letter on July 10 that crews would take out their shrubbery two days later.

“Per the owners, anything that was not planted by the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority will either be trimmed or removed,” Edwards wrote. “Anything planted in the ground in front of or on the sides of the apartments will be removed as of July 12th, starting at 8 a.m.”

That deadline lapsed with no action. Edwards told me groundskeepers were otherwise occupied, but said the shrubbery would be removed as soon as Tuesday.

Then came a turnabout. The housing authority halted its plan, perhaps because tenants had supporters in their corner. Many people questioned a blanket edict to take away plants and flowers that were a source of enjoyment for older residents.

Others familiar with the housing authority, Monarch or both accused them of being autocratic and mean-spirited.

One resident of Campo Alegria, a smaller public housing complex for seniors, says Edwards is an intimidating manager there, too.

“He prowls around the property with folded white papers in his hand to look like 7-day notices [of noncompliance], which he has handed out like confetti,” the man said.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe, was among those who looked into the controversy over removing plants at Villa Alegre. He sent a member of his staff to interview residents at the complex. Word of Udall’s interest spread quickly, perhaps helping residents attain a reprieve for their small gardens.

Residents I have interviewed in person say they are worried about retaliation in the form of notices for failure to comply with one rule or another. Two citations in six months are cause for eviction, Edwards wrote in his letter to residents.

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Romero, though, downplayed the possibility of evictions.

In a statement to me Thursday, he outlined the “long and painful process” of evicting tenants, plus all their protections through due process.

“In the 16 years of my tenure we have probably evicted 4 seniors and the violations those individuals committed were far more egregious than talking with a reporter,” Romero stated.

Another part of his statement dealt with the atmosphere at the complex.

“We are troubled that residents fear retribution or eviction when compliance with the rental contract is pretty straightforward,” Romero stated.

His assessment won’t make senior residents of Villa Alegre rest easier. Many say they live in fear.

“Management enters your unit to inspect everything,” said a woman who’s 83. “This is way overdone and meant to harass. I have had so many inspections — and keep a record of these — that it has become laughable.”

A master gardener, she still has the small lilac tree and forsythia bush she’s tended to for years. She said she spoke out about management because she hated the idea of seeing her plants uprooted for no good reason.

She also says she is grateful for her apartment, which is roomy and affordable. But she discounts Romero’s position that living at Villa Alegre is as easy as following terms of the lease.

“You are a third-class citizen or worse,” she said.

Her words, weightier than all the plants and shrubs, are something for Romero to consider.

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