In the eyes of the City of Philadelphia, Ramona Gaines is a squatter. Authorities banged on her door and informed her of this back in May.
That day, they also told Gaines, her 20-year-old sister Runell and 6-year-old daughter Ellana that they had 10 minutes to vacate the house in which they had resided for the last two years.
And Gaines was left wondering: Are squatters usually handed keys to the front door?
"I want my house back," she said.
According to the courts, her home belongs to the Eighteenth Street Development Corp., a nonprofit agency that runs several community-assistance programs, including one that sells affordable homes to people.
On Friday, Gaines and two female supporters staged a small demonstration outside the ESDC’s offices at 1815 S. 18th St. One of the women carried a sign that read: "18th Street is a baby Enron."
The group attracted some attention from passers-by but none from ESDC officials, who closed shop when they heard of the demonstration plans. The only representative who remained was a woman sitting in a car up the block; Gaines identified her as the ESDC’s attorney.
The dilemma began in late 1998 when Gaines approached the nonprofit in hopes of buying a home. She proceeded to qualify for a mortgage and, in April 1999, she said, the agency provided her with a list of available properties for sale.
She fancied a two-story brick rowhouse on the 2100 block of Wharton Street that needed considerable repairs and was selling for $28,000. Gaines said she gave the ESDC a $2,400 down-payment, and the two parties signed an agreement of sale in December 1999.
The closing was delayed multiple times during the next nine months — and several times because the building failed inspection, Gaines said. In February 2000, while repairs were being made, David L. Heaton, the ESDC’s executive director, gave Gaines the keys to the house so she could start painting it and moving in some belongings.
"He gave me the keys and told me everything was going to be all right," she claimed. "We were going towards settlement so I could start moving my stuff in."
She also remodeled the kitchen and bathroom and paid for electrical repairs. The work totaled about $6,500, Gaines said.
She began living in the house that June, even though the sale still had not been finalized. That same month, she was laid off from her job at Conseco Direct. Shortly afterward, she said, the ESDC informed her that Vintage Mortgage Corp. revoked Gaines’ mortgage — even though she already had found a new job.
"They said they had received a letter from the mortgage company stating the mortgage has been revoked," she said. "We’ve never received a letter to that effect. I’ve never seen the letter."
The ESDC then told Gaines that she had to pay $400 per month in rent, she said. Incidentally, according to Department of Licenses and Inspections documents, the nonprofit agency was not issued a landlord license for the property — making it legal for a landlord to collect rent — until December 2001.
Gaines stayed in the house and paid nothing for almost two years before being evicted. Now the courts say she owes the ESDC more than $10,000 in back rent.
Officials from the ESDC declined comment for this story. The woman identified as the group’s attorney also declined to be interviewed when a reporter approached her during Friday’s demonstration.
Upon calling the ESDC office, the Review was told the agency’s current executive director, Elizabeth Burns, would be out of the office for "a couple weeks" and was referred to the nonprofit’s attorney. The ESDC’s attorney, Susan Valinis, in turn had a board member call to say the organization would not comment because of the ongoing litigation involving Gaines.
Community development corporations such as the ESDC operate in various neighborhoods around the city. They are governed by residents and legally incorporated to perform specific development responsibilities in defined neighborhoods. Many are affiliated with nonprofit organizations in their areas.
Heaton, who served as the ESDC’s executive director when Gaines first applied to purchase a home, cofounded the organization in 1984. Burns has replaced him since.
The ESDC services blocks from Broad to 25th streets between Snyder and Washington avenues.
The Christian community-service organization has an annual budget approaching $750,000. It receives funding from city agencies, like the Office of Housing and Community Development, and federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also has received money from the United Way and various foundations, churches and individuals.
The ESDC’s mission statement says its purpose is "emphasizing family stabilization and community empowerment."
Since her problems began, Gaines said she has learned about at least one other person enduring a similar experience with the ESDC.
Raqueebah Holmes is still in her house on the 1500 block of Ringgold Street pending a decision on a lawsuit the ESDC filed against her in Municipal Court and a countersuit she filed.
According to ESDC court papers, Holmes stopped paying her rent in early 2001 and the organization sent her an eviction notice in November 2001.
Holmes’ attorney, Alan K. Marshall, explained she refused to pay — and instead deposited her monthly rent into a bank account — because she felt the ESDC wasn’t honoring a rent-to-own agreement the two parties had.
Through her countersuit, Holmes seeks $24,000 to cover the rent she did pay and various repairs she has made to the house since she moved there in March 1996. She also is alleging that the ESDC fraudulently convinced her to sign the lease by promising her she would have a chance to own the house in the future, but really had no intention to make such a deal.
"She believed all she had to do was pay the rent for 10 years," Marshall said, "and she would get [the house]."
A status hearing for Holmes’ case is scheduled for Nov. 20, when a trial date is expected to be set.
Gaines said she cannot afford an attorney. Robin Davis, a consumer advocate who has been assisting her, hopes to get Gaines back into her home, or at least recoup the down-payment and cost of improvements she invested.
"Miss Gaines went to them for help and wound up in a worse position," Davis said.
Davis helped organize Friday’s demonstration and plans to continue pestering the ESDC. She also might take her message to City Hall.
Since Gaines got kicked out of her home, she and her daughter and sister have bounced among eight residences, from New Jersey to Germantown.
"We’ve slept on couches. We’ve slept on floors. [The ESDC] knows this and they are all right with it," Gaines said. "You are a nonprofit organization, you base yourself as a Christian organization and this is how you treat people."
Gaines filed a motion with the state supreme court that would block the ESDC from selling her home while she continues to fight for it. The agency’s attorney has told her the ESDC would wipe out the $10,000 debt against her if she would drop that case, she claimed.