Mass evictions of dozens of families living at the Catherine Street Apartments in Starkville must immediately cease after a Tuesday morning temporary restraining order from Oktibbeha County Chancery Court Judge Joseph Studdard.
The order follows a complaint from Vollor Law Firm of Starkville, on behalf of numerous residents from the apartment complex, alleging that Ferretti Property Services, LLC, “seeks to illegally evict tenants from the 65 housing units at Catherine Street Apartments.” The complaint details allegations of several prior events over the past month in which Ferretti attempted to unlawfully terminate the tenancy of the numerous families still living in the units.
“You are entitled to 30 days notice before the eviction begins,” Austin Vollor, trial attorney and managing partner at Vollor Law Firm, explained in an afternoon interview with the Mississippi Free Press. “(Ferretti Property Services) didn’t give (residents) sufficient notice.”
“Then, they came out and tried to kick everybody out of their apartments (without) judicial authority,” Vollor continued. “There’s still, as of right now—we just checked the court file in justice court—there’s still no order signed or in place ordering an eviction. And they definitely didn’t have an eviction warrant when they went out to the property yesterday or Friday morning.”
Evidently, Judge Studdard found Vollor’s complaint compelling enough to grant a preliminary injunction against Ferretti Property Services not just for the eviction of the residents who joined the lawsuit but the entire apartment complex as a whole.
“Now, therefore, it is ordered as follows: Ferretti Property Services, LLC, their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys are hereby enjoined from removing or evicting any tenant at Catherine Street Apartments without proper notice,” Studdard concluded. The order is issued immediately and without notice to the opposing party because “irreparable injury has been threatened and is imminent.”
The order is in effect for 10 days, beyond which the court may extend it. A hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 8 at 9 a.m. at the Oktibbeha County Chancery Courthouse. There, the court will have the opportunity to grant more permanent relief to the residents of Catherine Street Apartments if it rules against Ferretti.
‘Scare Them Into Submission’
Vollor appraised Ferretti’s tactics bluntly. “Look, here’s the reality of what (Ferretti Property Services) tried to do. They have a bunch of poor people, who don’t have a lot of resources, who don’t have a lawyer on speed dial. They probably thought they could come in here from out of town, run through this whole place, cut corners, scare (residents) into submission and get ‘em out,” Vollor said, voice buoyant from the morning’s victory.
“And that actually worked on a few of them. Because in that community, they don’t like two things—the landlord and police officers—and both of them came banging on their door, telling everybody they got an hour to three hours to get out of there,” he finished.
Mayor Lynn Spruill was adamant, during a Saturday interview with the Mississippi Free Press, that the Starkville Police Department had no involvement with the eviction attempts of the previous Friday. She said the enforcement of removal orders were the responsibility of the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Office.
But residents, including T. Young, who spoke to the Mississippi Free Press over the weekend, were equally certain that the police had not only been present but had gone door to door with Ferretti representatives.
Today, after conferring with Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard, Spruill confirmed to this reporter that officers from the Starkville Police Department had, in fact, been at Catherine Street Apartments, walking door to door on Friday at the alleged illegal eviction attempt. But, Spruill continued, their purpose had been to “protect” the Ferretti agent, not to assist them in their attempts to evict the residents of the apartment complex.
“Management was concerned about their safety,” Spruill said. “(Starkville police) escorted (Ferretti representatives) as a part of a protection element rather than any kind of eviction process.”
Mayor Conflicted Over Police Role
That rather subtle distinction was not apparent to residents facing threats of eviction from a Ferretti representative escorted by armed police officers, Young said today. She understood that the officers were there to protect the landlord’s representative, but assumed that the presence of a police escort constituted legal support for the eviction attempt.
Her boyfriend, who spoke directly to the Ferretti rep, hadn’t interacted with the police accompanying her. “But for me, normally, when the police are with them … it must’ve been legal if the police were there,” Young said.
Spruill’s voice was conflicted in her estimation of Ferretti’s police escort. “I don’t know if it could have been avoided,” she said in today’s interview. “Hopefully next time we will be able to make it much clearer. Perhaps had we stood back some,” Spruill said, faltering. “I just don’t know. I wasn’t there. I can’t speculate on what I don’t know. It would be inappropriate for me to speculate.”
As of press time, Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard has yet to return a request for comment.
Ferretti Property Management responded to a series of requests for an interview with an email late this afternoon. “We will have a press release/statement for you within the next 48 hours,” the email read.
Vollor says the injunction is just the beginning. “Whether we get the permanent injunction or not, there’s going to be more litigation in regard to this because of the behavior of Ferretti,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.
‘A Safe and Worthy Living Space’
For Starkville Strong and other local activists seeking to protect the well-being of Catherine Street Apartments’ residents, Tuesday’s temporary injunction is an unqualified triumph.
Cate Van Halsema, secretary of Starkville Strong, celebrated the precious time that Vollor’s injunction had bought the residents of the apartment complex.
“This is a win,” she said. “It could have been a loss, could have gone the other way, but it’s a win because what it does is buys everybody more time.” The threat of residents unceremoniously thrown out into an oncoming storm with three days’ notice is thankfully past.
No part of today’s injunction is a permanent conclusion, neither for the pending legal case nor the residents of Catherine Street Apartments themselves. Residents and local officials alike agree that the conditions at the apartment complex are deplorable.
Starkville Strong’s Brandi Duncan-Herrington told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview today that “100%, our mission is to get these people into a safe and worthy living space.” The injunction, whether it lasts 10 days or indeed resets the entire clock on the eviction process, meaning a 30-day notice before evictions may proceed, serves to allow more time for residents to find new homes before Ferretti Property Services acquires the empty complex to renovate.
Van Halsema doesn’t expect the residents of Catherine Street Apartments to live there forever. “Our focus is, what is the dignified and humane way to treat people? And we want to do what we can to make sure that that happens?” She asked.
Standing Up for People of Starkville
Vollor said his role is to stand up for Starkville as a community. “The (residents) needed some relief. They needed somebody to tell them they love ‘em, you know? That the community gives a crap about ‘em. And whether we win this thing or not, sometimes the bullies need to be punched in the mouth,” Vollor said.
To Van Halsema, the message from the Starkville community is clear. “I’m not originally from here. But one thing that I’ve really fallen in love with having moved here is the way that people support each other,” she said. “And I think having every eye looking towards this as possible is important. We’re doing everything we can to help support these people.”
Young is breathing just a little easier after the injunction. But she’s looking ahead, too. She is already visiting other apartments and looking to get a lease as soon as possible, to make sure the roof over her head is not dependent on the outcome of any court case. Besides, after the abuse she says she’s experienced since Ferretti Property Services arrived, she’s ready to move on.
“(The order) is helping out a lot. A lot of us really didn’t have anywhere to go,” Young said. “So far, everything’s been going pretty good.”
Van Halsema is happy for the hard-won time. But it represents one victory in a much larger war. “This is not the first time it’s happened here. And certainly with the eviction moratorium being lifted, this is not only a Starkville story, right?” Van Halsema said.
Outside, Ida drifts away, no longer a storm, merely a glowering depression scattering across the southeast.
“I’m sure this is happening to a lot of other people.”