Earlier this month, six families who rent apartments from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7012 in New Freedom received a letter that their leases will be terminated on Oct. 15.
The news came as a shock to the tenants, who live in the three houses that were converted into apartments years ago. A mother and her veteran son reside in one of the dwellings. Another resident recently received a cancer diagnosis. Some lost work when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Many of the tenants, including Dominique Svatey and Brittany Jones, have worked for the VFW and helped with fundraisers over the years. Svatey, who lives with her mother, has been saving money to buy a home, but in the tight market, “you can’t buy a house in 90 days.”
“Ninety days is not enough time,” she said of the residents finding — and affording — another place to live during a pandemic. “… It’s sad. It just seems like they don’t have a heart.”
Post Commander Capt. John Smith said he sympathizes with the tenants, but he says the leases have to be terminated to help save the local VFW. The post has been struggling, and the pandemic “just made a bad situation worse.”
The VFW post along West Main Street has been closed since March 17. With the COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants and businesses, it will likely be some time before it can open up, he said.
The VFW is a nonprofit organization, but the apartments are taxable, Smith said. The plan is to get out of the landlord business — as advised by the state and district VFW organizations — and move those properties under the tax-exempt status.
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Upkeep of the older houses has been a concern, too, he said. The shrinking organization doesn’t have the volunteers to help with repairs, and the buildings would need to be fixed up for a rental management agency to take over.
“I feel we need to support the post and keep it around and do more for the veterans,” he said.
The tenants pay $500 or more a month but would be willing to pay extra to stay longer. They wonder why the leases are being terminated when they are bringing in money for the VFW.
Jones said she had helped with fundraisers in the past, including helping two people relocate after they lost their home in a fire.
“We’ve done charity work multiple times together,” she said.
The VFW letter, dated July 10, says it has not been an easy decision for the organization and references the challenges with the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are working to rebuild our organization and to focus on our mission of serving veterans,” it states.
Kyle Hopkins, a chaplain at the VFW, said he doesn’t agree with kicking the residents out in the middle of a pandemic. He questions how the tenants are going to afford another place, including putting down first and last month rent.
“The community is not going to stand for it,” he said.
A protest is planned for 3 p.m. Aug. 15, Hopkins said. The goal is to show community solidarity and let the members of the VFW know how people feel about the decision.
Meanwhile, Sandy Wennersten, who lives with her veteran son, said it’s almost like having the wind knocked out of you. She wonders if she is going to end up being homeless.
She is looking for a first-floor apartment — instead of a second- or third-floor one — because she had broken her leg and worries about falling. She also needs to find a place that will accept her two small dogs.
Senior housing and public assistance have lengthy waiting lists, Wennersten said.
“I’m not living a high luxury life,” she said. “I just need to know I have a roof over my head.”