At age 53, I went back to school and got a Bachelor’s Degree in behavioral sciences. I was living in New Jersey at the time. I almost didn’t finish school because of a serious health problem that was nearly fatal. After I graduated, I worked with the families and children of incarcerated people. But I soon began to slip into a deep depression because my health problems caused lasting impairments.
To get a fresh start on life, I decided to move to Georgia, near a childhood friend. I was optimistic about this new beginning. Soon after I got here, I rented an apartment. There were some red flags from the very beginning, but I wasn’t sure if that was because I was in a new state. The apartment complex took my down payment, but kept making excuses for why they wouldn’t show me the unit that I was supposed to rent. Eventually, their headquarters explained to me that there were major electrical problems in the unit, but they told me they were being repaired.
In October 2013, I finally moved in. For the first month, I had nothing in the apartment but a bed and my sleep apnea machine. However, my electric bill was so high that I knew there was a problem. I asked the complex management office for help. Georgia Power sent someone out to do an audit. They found that my electric was using three times more power than it should be. Georgia Power wrote a letter telling my landlord that my electrical system needed to be immediately replaced or repaired.
As the winter set in, my heat only worked occasionally. The apartment complex made a few attempts to repair the system, but the workers told me they didn’t have the right parts or couldn’t fix it. I was forced to wear layers of clothing and stay close to my space heater. I invited my family to Thanksgiving dinner at my place, but I had to cancel at the last minute because my heat broke again.
When my 7-year-old granddaughter visited, I pretended that dressing in layers was a game so she would not get scared. I stayed up all night, flipping the circuit breaker back on every half an hour when it would flip off, so my granddaughter wouldn’t freeze. Cold and stress make my health problems worse, and I was in a lot of pain.
I still believed that management at the complex was going to rectify the situation because they agreed to reduce my rent for one month. However, my Georgia Power bill was between 400-600 dollars per month. My only income is disability benefits. I could not continue to pay my electric bills and also pay rent. I need to use my sleep apnea machine to keep breathing at night, so letting the power get cut off would risk my life. In April 2014, I told management of my dilemma. I finally made an executive decision to pay my electric bill instead of my rent.
I began to seek outside help. I called Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) and everyone was polite and made sure I had all the information I needed to move forward. A volunteer lawyer sent a letter to my management office describing the problem and demanding that my power be fixed. But the landlord ignored the letter and filed a dispossessory for back rent and removal. I was extremely upset and scared, living here with no family and no one to turn to.
The volunteer attorney who wrote the letter could not represent me in court. I soon received a call from AVLF’s director of housing and consumer programs, Cole Thaler. Cole took my case and walked me through, step by step, everything I had to do. He made me feel like I was important and like he cared about my situation. The day before the hearing, he came to my house and went over everything that was needed for my case. My heartfelt extreme relief and gratitude to watch him represent my case in court the next day. It became clear to the opposing lawyer that my lawyer was prepared and qualified to fight for my rights. Of course, we won. My landlord agreed to dismiss the dispossessory and waive all back rent and late fees. I moved out soon after and am now living in a much better home.
Without AVLF I would have been another victim of a seven-day removal, the same as 90 percent of the cases that went before me that day. I will forever be grateful for AVLF and I will never forget Cole.