In her nearly two decades at Cumberland Towers, resident Betty Murray has often fought for the rights of her neighbors. They’ve been little victories: new wheelchair ramps, changes in the rules concerning pets. For the past four months, however, Murray has been fighting for what many Cumberland Towers residents fear the most: the right to face a hearing that could end with her being put out on the street. With the ACLU involved and the local media interested in reporting on her plight, it’s apparently a scenario Little Rock Housing doesn’t want to see play out. After several offers that Murray called “insulting” Housing lawyers may have finally made her an offer she can live with.
As chronicled in a series of stories in the Arkansas Times, Murray — 74 years old and usually bedridden due to multiple sclerosis — received an eviction notice from the Housing Authority on May 23, only days after coming to the Times with the claim that the alarm in her apartment never sounded during a May 5 fire that claimed the lives of two women. Though the Little Rock fire marshal’s preliminary report found that the fire detection and alarm system worked as designed the night of the fire, the Times eventually reached more than a half-dozen Cumberland Towers residents who said the fire alarms in their apartments didn’t sound the night of May 5, or went off so late as to make escape from the building impossible. A subsequent inspection by the company that installed the alarms found that smoke detectors in more than 10 percent of the apartments at Cumberland Towers failed when tested.
Murray’s eviction notice cites a supposed conspiracy by Murray and the Times to “malign” the Little Rock Housing Authority and gain access to the fire-damaged floors of the building. Elsewhere in the eviction notice, it is claimed that Murray cursed a member of the staff upon seeing her burned out home.
Since Murray originally heard she was to be evicted in May, Housing has cancelled her grievance hearing twice. Since the latest cancellation, no date for the hearing has been reset. The LRHA has continued to remind Murray that her eviction is still active, however, by making offers to stop the proceedings against her. Early offers were both contingent on Murray leaving Cumberland Towers and moving to other Housing Authority-managed properties. Murray refused, saying that she wanted to remain at Cumberland Towers and had done nothing that warranted her eviction.
Then, in early August, attorneys for Little Rock Housing, acting on the authority of newly installed director Shelly Ehenger, sent Murray a letter saying that she will be allowed to remain at Cumberland Towers only if she agreed to attend 10 sessions of stress management and communication therapy, makes apologies to Cumberland Towers site coordinator Cynthia Martin and other members of the Housing staff, and will “admit that her actions were inappropriate.”
Murray had no intention of doing any of the above, and quickly told Housing so. “If anyone deserves an apology, it’s me, for calling me a liar,” Murray said at the time. “They’re here to serve me, I’m not here to serve them. They get paid to do their jobs and I pay them to do it.”
Her resolve has apparently paid off. With Murray crowing that their bluff had been called, Housing attorneys came back with yet another offer last week: Admit that she “regrets” the incident, and sign a document saying she will abide by the terms of the lease, and she can stay.
True to her bulldog-like tenacity, however, Murray made a counter offer: She?ll accept, on the condition that Housing admits they also regret the incident and will sign the same document as she does — one that says they will abide by the terms of her lease. Housing had still not responded to her counter offer at press time. Little Rock Housing Authority director Shelly Ehenger could not be reached after almost a week of trying. Meanwhile, the Little Rock office of Housing and Urban Development, which provides funds to the Little Rock Housing Authority, referred all questions to Ehenger.
“I have to take it as far as it will go,” Murray said. “I’ve not proved to be a good example to anyone if I quit. I’m going to open my mouth, and if it’s my last bite, I’ll bite one last time.”
Though many of Murray’s neighbors have privately given her their support, she said they’re mostly too scared to speak up publicly. In recent months, Murray said, the strain has taken a toll on her health, but she added that if Housing refuses her latest counter offer, she’ll continue until she can’t go on. She’s too hard-boiled to think of herself as a symbol, but she can’t help but see her struggle against eviction through the eyes of those too frightened to speak up.
“If I fall over and play dead, what have I accomplished for the people here?” She said. “Everybody here is quiet. Do you know what a big thing it is for even one person to speak up — to see me still here after three months?”
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