Former Eco Village tenants await judge order in lawsuit

  • The now-vacant Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Tenants have been renting casitas, or tiny houses, at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Dec. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/11/2021 4:21:41 PM
Modified: 1/11/2021 4:21:19 PM

The former tenants of the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough who joined a class action lawsuit against landlord Akhil Garland are awaiting a judge’s order following a hearing on Thursday. The order could award immediate damages to tenants, which attorney Jason Bielagus argues are essential for their rehoming in the wake of the Dec. 16 eviction of the Eco Village’s 25 tenants.

“I was trying to express a sense of urgency,” Bielagus said on Monday, and that he hopes that reflects in the timing of the judge’s upcoming decision.

Many of the 13 former tenants who have joined the class action lawsuit were present for Thursday’s virtual hearing for a temporary order associated with the suit, during which Bielagus and Garland’s attorney Steve Dutton argued their respective cases before Judge Diane Nicolisi.

“Being homeless in New England, in the winter, during a once-in-100-years global pandemic is irreparable harm,” Bielagus said, justifying his motion for a temporary order that could quickly grant tenants some funds. He argued that although Garland and his associated trust and company could not immediately return tenants to the Eco Village due to the site’s multiple code and permit violations, Garland could begin to remedy the situation by immediately returning security deposits and December rent checks, and reimbursing tenants’ out-of-pocket expenses associated with moving out and finding emergency housing, and paying for a real estate agent to help tenants find new places to stay. “When you go to a new place, it’s not unusual to have to come up with three times the monthly rent in order to get in,” Bielagus said, and that damages paid to tenants would directly facilitate them finding their next place to live.

Represented tenants sought a total $17,845.86, plus court and attorney fees, in reimbursements of costs incurred in December. Listed costs include storage unit rentals, storage containers, mover’s fees and trailer rentals, lost wages for days spent packing and moving, increased costs of living in emergency housing, kennel fees for pets, P.O. box rentals, security deposits, and gas and vehicle mileage associated with relocating. Former residents are currently living in hotels with no kitchen access, Bielagus said,with the inability to cook substantially increasing their food costs. One succeeded in finding a new place to live, but it costs $225 a month more than what he’d been paying at the Eco Village, Bielagus said. Another still hasn’t received her security deposit, Bielagus said, and another couple didn’t cash the security deposit check they received from Garland  because there was language in the memo line that “could be construed as some sort of payoff of all claims,” Bielagus said.

Nicolisi could also opt to award additional damages, between $1,000 and $3,000 per day, per tenant, under the state’s consumer protection statute, Bielagus said. Although some leases were renewed on a month-to-month basis, at least one plaintiff’s lease was in effect through Sept. 2021, Bielagus said.

On behalf of Garland, Dutton disagreed that the landlord was obligated to reimburse residents for anything other than their security deposits, all but one of which had already been returned, he said. Several tenants listed in the suit had accepted payments, some in excess of the security deposit owed, Dutton said, and that residents uncomfortable with “amounts that were negotiated as a way to resolve this” could return the checks in exchange for checks with just the security deposit amount.

A number of tenants not included in the suit “accepted final payments and signed releases,” separate from anything indicated on a check, Dutton said. He further argued that the lease agreements accurately described the nature of the cottages and casitas on site, and noted that residents were paying “below market rent.”

“[They] can’t establish that the rent they paid was greater than the reasonable value of what they received,” Dutton said, and that no tenants had ever made a complaint prior to the Dec. 16 eviction.

Dutton also cited Garland’s disagreement with the town of Peterborough’s ruling that the dwellings were uninhabitable, as well as the town’s stated timeline of events on the property.

Also included in the complaint Bielagus filed on behalf of the tenants are longer-term damages, such as reimbursement of future rent if it’s in excess of what a tenant would have been paying to live at the Eco Village.  It also seeks past rent paid for housing that was represented to be residential dwellings “but lacked proper permitting, and had significant code violations that place the structures and their occupants at immediate risk,” according to the complaint.

“Twenty-five tenants paid rent for years, and they didn’t get habitable residential dwelling. Especially not in the later half of December 2020,” Bielagus said at Thursday’s hearing.

A motion for a pre-judgment attachment is also included in the documents Bielagus filed on behalf of tenants. The attachment is an attempt to afford plaintiffs security, he said, because even if they win the suit, a defendant could bar them from ever collecting if they succeeded in hiding money and assets. To this extent, Bielagus said he’s investigating tenant claims that Garland owns a development project in Nicaragua, in addition to the ten properties he owns between Peterborough and Harrisville, which include three homes in Harrisville as well as undeveloped land, Bielagus said.

“My concern here is that he could move assets offshore and it would make it very difficult for plaintiffs to collect,” he said, even if they did win. Garland’s representatives have 30 days to respond to the attachment, which will be handled separately to Thursday’s motion for a temporary order, Bielagus said.

“I do not own a development in Nicaragua and that claim is a typical scattershot, over-reaching, non-factual statement by Mr. Bielagus," Garland said when asked for comment.


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