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Resident alleges retaliation at housing complex that saw December blackout

On the evening of May 3, Pearlie Williams, 62, a longtime resident at JJ Henderson Senior Apartments, came home to an eviction notice taped to her front door. The envelope’s contents revealed little—only that Williams’ lease would be terminated the following Monday.

In February, the 9th Street Journal published stories tracing the fallout of a late-December blackout that left JJ Henderson residents afraid, puzzled, alone, frustrated—and without vital medical equipment in the dark. Williams was among the residents quoted in the stories—and she believes that’s the impetus for her eviction.

“…All I could think about is this article,” Williams said. “This is a form of retaliation for what we did—for what we told them.”

The Sunday before Williams found the notice, she said she accidentally started a fire in her unit while cooking bagels. Williams, who struggles with severe glaucoma and cataracts, said she did her best to smother the fire by using a dish towel immediately. Later, she disposed of the towel in a trash bin, but it eventually caught fire again, triggering smoke alarms. 

Williams didn’t think about the incident until two days later when another resident warned her that management planned to pursue charges. Alarmed, Williams called property manager Michele Skarada seeking answers. Skarada refused to speak with her, Williams said.

“She said, ‘I’m not talking to you about this…. After all the things you’ve said about me. Why would I talk to you?’” Williams said.

Skarada, who works for California Commercial Investment Companies, did not respond to questions from the 9th Street Journal yesterday. (CCI manages the apartment complex, but the Durham Housing Authority owns the land.)

The following morning, Williams said, three police officers startled her awake, forced her to get dressed, and put her arms behind her back. They took her to Durham County Jail, where she was charged with arson. She bonded out the same day. 

Upon her return home, she discovered the eviction notice. One of her neighbors told her that Skarada had posted it earlier that afternoon. Williams twice attempted to reach the management office, she said, but got no answer. 

“They have taken a small and simple matter and turned it so big…. But why?” asked Williams, choking up during a telephone interview. 

Another resident, Rafiq Zaidi, who has lived at JJ Henderson for 17 years, told the 9th Street Journal that, in the past, residents had done far worse than burning breakfast—and received less severe punishment. He recalled an incident five years ago, when a resident forgot to turn off an iron before leaving an apartment. This left the entire unit burnt, Zaidi said. 

“The only thing they did—because it was an accident—was move her to the eighth floor. So those charges that [Skarada] filed were very vindictive,” said Zaidi, another resident who was quoted in the 9th Street Journal articles about the outage. “They were hoping that they would scare Pearl and she would leave. They are angry at her because of the articles that 9th Street and the Indy wrote.” 

On December 23 and 24, JJ Henderson, a 178-unit affordable housing community of seniors and disabled people, experienced a 35-hour power outage. The 9th Street Journal reported that at a City Council work session in January and in interviews,  residents complained that during the blackout, their apartments were dark, health equipment such as electric wheelchairs and heart monitors stopped working, and electronic locks on the building’s doors failed. 

They said no one from the Housing Authority or CCI  checked on them until Dec. 27. 

In response to the allegations, City Council member DeDreana Freeman said she would investigate what happened; the Housing Authority planned to follow up with residents but ultimately denied that no one had checked on the them.

Asked yesterday about this latest controversy, Housing Authority spokesperson Aalayah Sanders said she couldn’t comment because Williams’ eviction is now a legal matter. 

Williams, meanwhile, said she won’t give up her home without a fight. As of yesterday, she was still in her apartment.

“Whatever happens behind all of this, it just has to happen,” she said. “Somebody needs to shake this tree, and if I’m chosen to do it, so be it. I have not been found guilty of anything.”