MELBOURNE, Fla. — “Where did my money go for three months?”
That’s what Katy Rhoades wanted to know back on Christmas Eve in 2019, when she says Cambridge Management representatives slapped 3-day eviction warnings on residents’ doors at Sabal Palms Apartments. For Rhoades, who had been paying her rent, the warning was a total shock.
What You Need To Know
- Some residents at Sabal Palms Apartments in Melbourne say they're being told to double-pay for rent
- They say a former property manager stole their rent payments and the complex wants them to pay again
- Several say they are facing eviction due to the situation, even though they've continued to pay rent
“It was instant fear,” Rhoades said. “I had never been through something like that. I had two young kids at the time.”
Rhoades showed Cambridge staff receipts for the money orders she’d used to pay her rent. She says staff told her it was her job to contact Western Union and pay to have those money orders tracked.
Under Florida law landlords must first provide tenants a written 3-day notice to pay past due rent, before filing an eviction complaint with the court. Rhoades didn’t know that. She thought her 3-day notice was a court directive.
“I had never dealt with an eviction notice before,” Rhoades said. “I took it for real, like, you have three days.”
Fearful of losing her home, Rhoades ended up paying three months’ worth of rent again — rent she’d already paid to Sabal Palms, where a former property manager allegedly stole payments from multiple tenants and kept the money for herself. Agent Wolfgang Kermer, a detective on the Brevard County Sheriff’s Economic Crimes Task Force, confirmed to Spectrum News that an investigation with “a lot” of alleged victims is ongoing.
Just a few doors down from Rhoades, the Mabry family was grappling with the same problem. Unlike Rhoades, Rebecca Mabry said she refused to double-pay the $2,100 Cambridge demanded from her back in December 2019.
Now, more than a year later, she’s still battling an eviction.
“I just think you shouldn’t get away with covering it up, making people pay double,” Mabry said. “More or less, their property manager stole it and they made people pay again or get out.”
Mabry said she, her husband and their 19-year-old son were “elated” back in December 2019, when they learned they’d been approved to rent a townhouse at Sabal Palms. They brought over a U-Haul, their first month’s rent and a security deposit, and gave it to the property manager.
But Mabry says when she inquired about the lease, the property manager said they’d run out of copies in the office, and to not worry about signing it until after Christmas. Although she shudders to think of it now, in that moment, Mabry agreed.
“We should have never done that,” Mabry said, shaking her head. “But we trusted. You know, we didn’t think we were gonna be conned by the property manager.”
She still struggles to understand what happened that day.
“She looked right at me at Christmas time, shook my hand, wished me a Merry Christmas. Her kids were in the office,” Mabry said. “I just didn't think we were gonna get conned.”
Yet on Christmas Eve, Cambridge Management representatives knocked on Mabry’s door. They told her in their system, her unit appeared as vacant.
“They wanted to see our receipts. So we showed them to them. And they told us, ‘Oh, we're gonna do the right thing, we're gonna get you guys a lease,’” Mabry said.
But that’s not what happened.
In February 2020, Sabal Palms filed an eviction complaint against Mabry. Since then, the Mabrys have paid their rent each month into the court registry, along with filing fees. They’re now trying to secure legal representation before a hearing on May 20.
“It’s really, really affected all of us,” Mabry said. “Myself, I feel like I’ve aged 10 years.”
Mabry and her husband shielded the eviction from their son Kevin, who graduated from high school with an associate’s degree last year, for as long as they could. He’s now attending the Florida Institute of Technology on a scholarship.
“It was very difficult on him, to be graduating in 2020 and then have to worry about not having a place to live. So we didn't tell him for quite a few months,” Mabry said.
Now though, Mabry is speaking out — not just for her family, but for other impacted community members. Several other Sabal Palms residents confirmed their similar experiences to Spectrum News, but declined interviews, fearing retribution.
“I think it's a travesty to have it not told. It's almost like a cover-up, and people were so affected by it,” Mabry said. “We watched people get evicted around us. I just wanted to speak up for everyone who was affected.”
"Everybody here deserves justice"
While he couldn’t confirm many details about an open investigation, Kermer acknowledged how long the Sabal Palms case has been going on.
“Everything was backlogged,” due to COVID-19 and many victims, witnesses and bank employees working from home, Kermer told Spectrum News, adding that he hopes to wrap the investigation up “as soon as possible.”
One piece of evidence he was able to share with Mabry are copies of the money orders she gave the former property manager. Mabry showed Spectrum News the copies, which appear to have been altered with white-out.
“We wrote (the money orders) to Sabal Palms, and she whited that out and put her name in place of them,” Mabry said. “That should have been a red flag, seeing white out and then seeing somebody's name written over it.”
Yet despite the suspicious money orders, the open sheriff’s investigation and the more than $12,000 in rent payments deposited to Brevard County’s court registry, Mabry still legitimately fears her family may become homeless within the next couple weeks. The family created a GoFundMe for legal expenses; they’re trying to secure representation before their next hearing, which is only days away.
Nationally, eviction courts are skewed in landlords’ favor, with about 90% of tenants lacking legal representation in eviction cases. Studies show, the vast majority of tenants without legal counsel lose their eviction cases. States and cities are increasingly considering how to better support vulnerable tenants, with Washington recently becoming the first U.S. state to guarantee the right to legal counsel for low-income renters facing eviction.
In the meantime, Rhoades hopes her neighbors will be able to find some peace after all they’ve endured at Sabal Palms.
“Everybody here deserves justice,” Rhoades said.
When asked whether she thinks they’ll get it though, her response is a pause — then, a reluctant “no.”
Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering Affordable Housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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