Jo Ann Gosson received the bad news when she was in the emergency department at the University of Tennessee Medical Center at the end of October: She had 30 days to move out of her apartment.
“My daughter came and told me, and she was white as a sheet,” Gosson said in a recent phone interview.
An octogenarian who didn’t want to reveal her exact age, Gosson said she had been in the hospital about 16 hours for procedures related to a strangulated hernia, and the news shook her.
Daughter Chris Gosson had found two letters in their mailboxes. “You are required by law to surrender the premises to Keith Edmonds within 30 days of receipt of this letter,” one said, explaining that Edmonds, who bought the property on Sept. 15, would not renew her lease or her mother’s when a month’s time was up.
Chris Gosson said at first she didn’t know how to tell her mother. She was helping the older woman eat when she finally broke the news.
“Finally I just said, ‘Mom, I don’t know how to tell you this. There’s a letter waiting for you at home. We have 30 days to get out.’”
The mother and daughter are two of six women ranging in ages from about 50 to 80 whose leases are set to expire by the end of November and who could face eviction after that, according to the Oct. 23 letters. (One of the six women already has vacated the premises.)
“I was floored,” Jo Ann Gosson said, adding that when her daughter told her the news, she had been thinking about what needed to be done at the apartment to prepare for long-term bed rest following the surgery she needs.
Suddenly she and her daughter, who has her own apartment there, were staring potential homelessness down the barrel.
This was also the first time she’d heard from her new landlord that there were plans to move recovering drug addicts into the apartments he bought in September.
“He could have told us before, but he didn’t,” Gosson said.
Jo Ann Gosson is on a fixed income and Chris Gosson lost her job when ExpressJet announced in August it would shutter operations at McGhee Tyson Airport because of economic fallout related to the coronavirus pandemic.
All this is happening during a national moratorium on evictions because of COVID-19 and at a time when the waiting list for local low-income housing is 12-18 months.
A place for transitional living
Edmonds bought the eight-apartment property built on South Fourth Street in Maryville in 1974 from Marilyn and John Prospero for $710,000, according to state records.
He’s letting the six women’s leases expire because he wants to lease their apartments to the Blount County Recovery Court Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for the Blount County Recovery Court program and establishes housing for nonviolent offenders transitioning back into society from jail or other law enforcement custody.
Edmonds said even though the decision to end the leases was a difficult one, he is dedicated to serving the community by providing a place for recovering drug offenders.
The current residents say he never told them about plans to move those offenders into the apartments. They learned of the plan from Recovery Court Foundation Executive Director and former Blount County Jail Chaplain Randy Cruze, who started preparing the apartments for new tenants soon after Edmonds bought them.
Between Sept. 15 and Oct. 23, some of the women saw Cruze looking over two vacant apartments at the building and inquired what he was doing. Cruze explained there was a plan to place four or five men in each of the vacant apartments, set up cameras in the area and begin using the building as the foundation’s second transitional living facility.
The foundation has operated a similar facility in a High Street house in Maryville for about a decade, in an operation officials say is highly monitored and has built-in accountability systems.
The Fourth Street apartment residents and their families weren’t happy about the prospect of having former drug offenders as neighbors. Many said they were worried about their safety.
Then they learned they would face eviction if they weren’t out about a month later.
The Oct. 23 letters from Edmonds were the first they learned they would be losing their leases, the women said.
Working out the numbers
Edmonds works at Pinnacle Financial Partners in Maryville as a mortgage adviser, but the firm has nothing to do with the Fourth Street purchase, he emphasized in a recent interview with The Daily Times.
He and Recovery Court Foundation President Ryan Desmond — also a Blount County assistant district attorney — said the idea of using a Maryville apartment building as a transitional living facility began in early 2020 when the program and Edmonds both wanted to buy a different set of apartments on North Sixth Street.
“At that point, the numbers didn’t work,” Edmonds said, explaining how he and the foundation tried to work out a similar deal at Sixth Street in January.
He said what foundation leaders offered at Sixth Street didn’t fit his budget, but he now owns that property as well.
“So then, when I purchased Fourth Street, I said (to Desmond), ‘Well, I know you’re interested in this,’” Edmonds said.
Desmond said when he learned Edmonds had bought the Fourth Street apartments, he told Edmonds, “Well hey, if you think this is a building that might work for the foundation, let us know and we’ll come check it out,” the prosecutor said in a recent phone interview.
But even though plans to use the apartments for the foundation were under consideration before the purchase, residents there said they didn’t know.
Desmond said the recovery organization didn’t know about the current Fourth Street apartment residents’ ages or their medical conditions. “The foundation wouldn’t have known anything about who lived there or how many people lived there or anything like that,” he said.
Currently the foundation is leasing at least two of the eight apartments from Edmonds for $800 a month. The individuals who live there will each pay $125 a week, Desmond said, adding, “That’s a standard rate for transitional living centers in the area.”
Responding to allegations from the current residents and their families, Edmonds said this is not a money-making endeavor and that he’ll only just “break even” in the end.
While the Prosperos owned the apartments, the six women — each living in a different apartment — paid between $425 and $480 a month.
‘Nothing to hide’
“If I could have done one thing differently it would have been just a little bit more pre-communication,” Edmonds said. He explained that he didn’t contact the Fourth Street apartment residents about the foundation’s plans because he didn’t have all their phone numbers.
“Fair point, I could have knocked on a door, I get that,” he added.
Since The Daily Times started researching this story, residents said Edmonds has contacted them in person and by phone, apologized in some cases and explained he wanted to be flexible and consider the residents’ personal situations. Some said they refused to speak with him.
Edmonds said he’s frustrated they took the conversation public by posting about it on Facebook and leaving negative Google reviews on his Pinnacle mortgage adviser profile.
Recently, Krista LeQuire, Fourth Street apartment resident Elaine Roach’s daughter, said she knocked on 25 neighborhood doors recently and handed them copies of Edmonds’ letter.
When The Daily Times knocked on some of those neighbors’ doors on Nov. 5, they said LeQuire’s visit was the first time they’d heard of the foundation’s plan to turn the apartments into transitional living.
Cruze told The Daily Times in an interview days after the letter was sent that he planned to visit neighbors and talk to them. “We will go door to door, introduce ourselves, let people know what we’re doing,” he said. But as of Monday, Nov. 9, neighbors at homes adjacent to the apartment property and across the street said the foundation still had not contacted them.
“We don’t have anything to hide,” Cruze said earlier by phone, something he said he’s repeated to family members. “They said we were sneaking around. We’re not sneaking around,” he said, adding family members were “rude” when they talked to him about the program.
A growing program
“I think everyone has good intentions here of trying to do the right thing,” Desmond said, emphasizing how difficult it is to convince neighborhoods to support transitional-living efforts.
“Candidly, there’s not a whole lot of property owners who are really interested in owning a building where this is going on, even though … these buildings are better supervised than any other building would be,” he added.
Desmond explained the long-term goal is to slowly move men out of the High Street street facility to the Fourth Street apartments so that they can designate High Street exclusively for women.
Since he started working with the program about seven years ago, Desmond said, the number of Recovery Court participants has increased from about 40 or 50 to 110 or 120.
That’s put stress on the High Street location, Desmond explained, which is why the foundation wanted to expand to a new location.
“There certainly is a stigma related with this,” he said. “I think everyone agrees that they want to help individuals who have fallen into the world of addiction. But that help becomes more tentative, when (people recovering from addiction) might be somewhere around them.”
The Fourth Street residents contacted by The Daily Times, though leery about their new neighbors, said they understand the need for recovery efforts in the county.
But Edmonds said he was heavily criticized when they found out drug offenders trying to turn their lives around would be moving next door.
“I initially intended for this to be a gradual process, but the feedback was ‘Wait a second. That’s not happening,’” he said.
Family members and residents indicated they were vocally upset about the prospect of living next to people recovering from addiction, but also said they were willing to adapt if necessary.
“I was concerned,” LeQuire said. “I think anybody would be. But I felt like we could deal with that situation. We could make sure they were all safe.”
Residents said they continue to struggle with the lack of communication. Even though Edmonds was quick to respond to a maintenance request from Jo Ann Gosson before he sent out the letters and has since reached out to try and understand their individual situations, many are still shocked by the fact that the letters initially indicated they would have to move in a month.
Edmonds said it was a difficult decision, emphasizing he wants to be flexible in the coming weeks.
“The impression doesn’t need to be that I’m insensitive or cold or calloused or any of those things,” Edmonds said, adding no one who knows him would characterize him like that.
Facing the future
Jo Ann Gosson plans to have surgery in mid-November and said after she’ll have to stay home for at least a month to recover.
She’s lived in the apartments approximately 12 years, and her daughter has lived there for 13 years. Edmonds has offered to rent them another one of his properties — records show he owns at least 13 in Blount County — where they can live together for $1,100 a month.
But Chris Gosson said she is hesitant to rent from Edmonds.
Edmonds in one of the two letters offered each resident $500 to cover moving expenses and asked for a signed response accepting the money by Oct. 31.
“Please understand that although this is challenging, our community will be a better place to live for all of us because of this,” Edmonds concluded in one of his letters.
“We’ve been all over the place trying to find an apartment,” Jo Ann Gosson said on Oct. 30. “There’s nothing out there. They’re saying six months, eight months. And November’s got a holiday. He expects us to move and this apartment to be clean in one month. That can’t be done. After I have my surgery, I have six weeks to recuperate.”
Edmonds texted to The Daily Times on Saturday, Nov. 7, that Jo Ann and Chris Gosson would be staying in their apartments until Jo Ann recovers from her surgery. He said he planned to meet with some of the frustrated family members.
Because of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions through Dec. 31, fearing increases in homelessness could aggravate the virus’ spread.
Attorneys told The Daily Times in recent interviews, however, it’s currently difficult to argue evictions cases in court unless residents meet five criteria, including inability to pay rent, risk of homelessness, applying for government rent assistance, being within annual income guidelines and making timely payments.
Neighbors in the Fourth Street area — some of them families with young children — expressed concern and anger about the transition facility plans. Some of them plan to build taller fences. Others are concerned about jogging at night. Still others expressed worry about students who attend classes at the nearby Samuel Everett School of Innovation.
But most struggle to understand how the situation was fair to the current apartment residents who initially were given 30 days to relocate or face potential eviction during the holiday season.
According to Edmonds, as of Sunday, Nov. 8, there were two men living in each of the two previously unoccupied apartments.
Friday former Fourth Street apartment resident Jane Greer called The Daily Times during a dialysis treatment, to which someone drives her three times a week.
Greer now lives in an $860-per-month Alcoa apartment so small, she said, she’s had to give some of her belongings to her family and church.
“It’s been crazy,” she said. “My health is getting worse, and I can’t get around very good. It’s all just a lot of stress.”