Dozens of seniors face imminent eviction by the new owners and managers of an Ivywild apartment complex where some tenants have lived for decades - leaving them scrambling to keep from being homeless right after the holidays.
Most - and possibly all - of the Emerald Towers Apartments tenants were told to leave within 60 days while the 1960s-era building underwent "exciting and upscale upgrades," according to residents, who provided copies of the eviction letters taped to their doors Wednesday.
The letter said each resident could apply to return once the renovations at the roughly 70-unit building at 107 W. Cheyenne Road were complete. But it gave no guarantee that the seniors would be accepted back - nor that the complex would still cater to people 55 and older.
The move left the seniors - some of whom were reportedly battling cancer and other serious health ailments - with the prospect of spending the holiday season searching for new places to live in a tight and increasingly-expensive rental market.
"It was a mind-blower," said Julie Westendick, 76, a resident of six years. "Right before the holidays is not a good time to do that to anybody."
"I have to have hip surgery," she added. "My mother's dying - this is not a time I need to be coping with this.... What a Thanksgiving this is."
Confused and shell-shocked residents gathered in hallways and wept after discovering the letters taped to their doors Wednesday, said Jane Trogdon, 74. She moved in 46 years ago, and never planned to leave.
"This is just a heartless thing," Trogdon said. "A lot of them don't have places to go. There aren't many vacancies - they're hard to find."
The notice came after Emerald Towers Apartments LLC paid $9 million to acquire the property from the Humphries Family Partnership of Colorado Springs, according to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office.
Details on the new owners were scant. A Colorado Secretary of State's filing listed the company under Shmary Baumgarten, identified in real estate industry publications as a New York developer who focuses on Brooklyn-area properties. He directed inquiries to Apartment Management Consultants LLC, the building's new managers.
Calls by The Gazette to AMC's regional property manager, Ashley Jefferson, who issued the demand to residents, were not returned Thursday.
Ending rental agreements in such a manner can be legal, though questions remain whether AMC's letters would stand up in court, said Craig Carmean, an attorney with Colorado Legal Services. The nonprofit provides legal assistance to low-income residents and seniors.
In general, tenants on a month-to-month rental agreement must only be given 21 days notice from the end of their rental period, Carmean said. That notice must include the exact date and time they must leave.
Breaking yearlong lease agreements is more complicated, because landlords much have a specific reason, such as a lease violation, he said.
Most - if not all - of the people there more than one year had monthly agreements, Trogdon said. She said her rent remained the same for the past seven years - $815 a month for a two-bedroom, two bathroom apartment with utilities and a carport included.
She acknowledged it was a good deal in Colorado Springs' searingly hot rental market, and during a dire affordable housing shortage. But she blasted the mass eviction as "extreme," saying she would have considered paying more to stay.
"Why wouldn't you renovate one floor at a time?" she said. "There has to be a better solution."
Record-high rents - now topping $1,100 a month on average - and robust demand by millennials and empty-nesters have made Colorado Springs especially attractive to apartment buyers. Likewise, Denver prices have skyrocketed and some apartment investors believe they can find good deals in a secondary market such as Colorado Springs.
Typically, apartment buyers complete a purchase, make repairs and upgrades to a property and then boost rents to ensure a return on their investment.
But pushing out residents before improvements are made is unusual - at least in Colorado Springs, said Gary Winegar, president of investment services for Griffis/Blessing Inc. of Colorado Springs. It's one of the city's largest real estate companies.
"It's not the way we would do it," Winegar said. "I understand how it probably is more efficient to get it all done at once. It may cost less in the long run potentially, when you're doing everything at once.
"But it's the people side of it. We wouldn't do it that way, especially with older people on a fixed-income or whatever."
When Griffis/Blessing buys an apartment property and embarks on upgrades, it gives renters several options, Winegar said. They can move temporarily to another apartment while improvements are made. Or, renters can relocate permanently to another unit in the apartment complex, he said.
When longtime residents refuse to leave, Griffis/Blessing allows them to stay in their apartments and delays improvements, Winegar said.
Griffis/Blessing explored purchasing Emerald Towers this summer when it was listed for sale, but dropped out of the bidding when the price went too high, Winegar said.
Along with the order to leave, Emerald Towers residents were given a list of six of AMC's "sister" properties along the city's south side.
Receptionists and leasing managers at three of those properties - the Crest View, the Cheyenne Crossing and the Cheyenne Crest apartments - answered calls by The Gazette on Thursday. They said at least five units were immediately available. At least a couple dozen units are expected to be available by the end of December, and even more in January.
Studio or junior apartment rates began at about $850 a month at those complexes. One-bedroom apartments ranged from $950 to $1,130 a month, and two-bedroom apartments ranged from about $1,100 to about $1,300 a month.
That's hundreds of dollars more than residents were paying at the Emerald Towers.
Phil Erholm, 79, said he paid $575 a month for his one bedroom. He slept two hours Wednesday night after getting the letter.
"I'd never go to an apartment that's owned by the same company that's kicking us out," Erholm said.
AMC's notice came with one sweetener - that anyone who left within 30 days would get $500.
That came as little relief to Trogdon.
She had already planned a trip to Baltimore in a couple weeks for her 7-month-old great niece's christening - a trip she refuses to cancel.
Trogdon also had planned on returning to Baltimore for Christmas.
Now that trip's in doubt.
"I'm just totally lost," she said. "And so is everyone else in the building."
Gazette reporter Rich Laden contributed to this report.