Nonproft being forced out of Bluffton apartments fights back

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 30, 2013 

Nine-year-old Andrew Velaquez thought the five hours he spent knocking on doors and collecting signatures a few weeks ago had been enough.

As he stood behind a group of 75 children, parents and supporters chanting outside Bluffton House Apartments' management office Wednesday, he tugged on Teresa Ullman's skirt and pointed to the crowd.

"They are still getting rid of NOC?" he asked. "What are we going to do without NOC?"

A third-grader at Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton, Andrew was among the crowd who delivered a petition Wednesday asking the apartments' property manager, Aspen Square Management, to reconsider forcing Neighborhood Outreach Connection, a nonprofit community assistance organization, out of the complex Nov. 30.

Regional managers of Aspen Square had left before the petition was delivered, according to Bluffton House employee Maria Rivera, who answered the door and said she could not comment on the situation.

NOC, which provides after-school help and other services to low-income families, was told in May by the Massachusetts-based manager that it would have to vacate its two apartments when its lease expires at the end of November.

Since then, the group has asked Aspen Square to allow it to stay at least until the end of the semester in mid-December and continue providing students with "homework tutoring, access to school programs via high-speed Internet, and help as students prepare for their standardized tests given by local schools," group vice chairwoman Ally McNair said.

"So far, Aspen Square has said no," she said.

Christey Simkins, district manager for Aspen Square, said Wednesday she could not discuss the program's lease.

"It's a private matter, a legal document with their name on it," she said. "We simply can't discuss that with anyone but them."

In the petition delivered Wednesday, the group's chairman, Narendra Sharma, outlines the benefits it has provided to more than 300 children in the community, 90 percent of whom live at the apartment complex, he said.

"All in all, teachers, parents, students know that the impact is huge," he said. "It's a shame to deprive these kids of the culture of learning we've created over three years, for financial considerations and loss of revenue."

Sharma said Aspen Square, which took over the complex in December, loses $15,000 to $20,000 a year on NOC, which does not pay rent. A state law does not allow low-income housing providers such as Bluffton House to accept rent from nonprofit groups for subsidized apartments.

In a letter dated Aug. 7, Simkins offered to allow the group to rent as many as two non-subsidized apartments for $1,000 a month each. The nonprofit group also would have to pay up to $500 per apartment for moving costs and pay to refurbish the new units, Simkins' letter said. Neighborhood Outreach Connection had two days to respond, the letter said.

"While the owners certainly appreciate the value of your work and charity, they are unable to extend the $12,000 contribution that you have asked for due to the financial needs of the property and company," the letter said.

Sharma turned down the offer in a letter that same day.

"Under no market practices in this country do property owners force new renters to pay to refurbish an apartment," he said. "So why impose that penalty on NOC?"

With the Nov. 30 deadline looming, Sharma said the nonprofit is prepared to continue holding classes under an oak tree in the complex's courtyard through the end of the semester.

"We can't disrupt the children during standardized testing," he said.

After that, he's not sure what will happen.

He said he has been in contact with Lowcountry Baptist Church to try to acquire a classroom trailer and keep the program in the area, since many of the children don't have transportation to go farther away.

Mica Weathers, who has two children in the program, said she can't imagine what the community would do without NOC.

"I've lived here for nine years, and since this program came, I've never seen anything like it," she said. "It helps me, it helps my kids. I just don't know why they want to take it away."


Neighborhood Outreach Connection's petition to Aspen Square Management

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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