Imminent Eviction?

A historic downtown building sits at the center of a rent dispute

A technicality kept Therese Perreault's arts organization from being evicted from the historic C.O. Brown House, located at 40 W. Broadway Blvd.

Perreault received the eviction notice from her landlord for the last three years, El Centro Cultural de las Americas.

Perreault, director of Community Storytelling Arts and Arts Marketplace, says she first received a letter of eviction on Feb. 25 from El Centro's executive director, Elva Flores.

"We responded in writing asking if we could work something out, but nothing. We never heard from Elva or anyone at El Centro," Perreault says.

On Tuesday, April 5, Perreault found an official eviction notice taped to her office door. The notice was dated April 1; Perreault says the judge threw out the eviction based on that date-discrepancy technicality during an April 8 court hearing.

Perreault has since written to the El Centro board asking for at least 60 days of notice—or to allow her to stay.

According to El Centro's website, the group was founded in 1990 to preserve "Tucson's Hispanic heritage." That same year, the Arizona Historical Society agreed to lease the C.O. Brown House to El Centro for $1 per year, as long as the organization used the space for cultural events and maintained the structure.

The historic adobe house was given to the Arizona Historical Society with a promise that the building be used to preserve culture and arts in Tucson.

Perreault moved her organization to the house in 2008, signing a lease to pay $400 a month. Last year, Perrault expanded a project she started in 2009 and began using other spaces for monthly events.

"When first I took this space ... there was junk everywhere. The back door was completely boarded up, and this area was used for a dumping ground. With all the work I was doing, the lease got reduced to $300 a month," Perreault says. "After months of talking to (El Centro), I wrote up an addendum to lease another space (last year) for $100. ... The addendum wasn't signed, but the checks were cashed."

From January through June 2010, Perreault says, things were going well, but then the swamp cooler broke down, which she paid to fix. Twice, Perreault says, she paid to have bee nests removed from the property. She also began writing grants for El Centro—all in exchange for rent.

"All of it was verbal," she says. "Up to this point, I had no reason to think I needed to have our agreements in writing."

Perreault continued to make repairs on the property and deduct those costs from her rent—even, she says, paying the electric bill after discovering the electricity had been shut off due to a lack of payment. Perreault says that according to her lease, El Centro pays for the electricity and then divides the bill between tenants. The landlord is supposed to maintain the building, too, "but that never happened."

The eviction letter Perreault received doesn't mention rent, but does note the use of unauthorized space, which Perreault says includes a space used by photographer Mike Weber, who allowed Perreault to use the front room he leased.

Perreault says her work is bringing more people through the C.O. Brown House than ever before. (See TQ&A, Dec. 16, 2010.)

"Opening the facility has started working. People are attracted by what we are doing, and they come in here. They see the potential," Perreault says.

Due to these successes, Perreault and volunteers gave a proposal to the El Centro board asking if they could work together to manage the property.

"In the proposal, there are community leaders who have signed on to do the work—historic preservation leaders, architects (and) landscaping people who have spent the time to talk with us. We submitted it to El Centro on Feb. 22, and we were still waiting to hear from them when we got the eviction letter," she says.

Perreault says she thinks Flores issued the eviction because she "got wind that we want to manage (the property) better. But you know, I don't want to sit back and waste my money keeping this place together ... while one individual sees fit to let it rot. I could go quietly, but I'm conflicted, because I think we've been doing great things here."

The Tucson Weekly called Flores for comment, but she did not respond.

Raúl Silva, the El Centro board president, told the Weekly that El Centro officials want to work things out—and that Perreault's claims aren't entirely true.

"We don't really want to ruin anyone, but it puts a lot of pressure on us when one of our tenants hasn't paid rent for quite a while," Silva says.

It's not just rent that's an issue, Silva says. El Centro rents out the patio, and one of the requirements is that any liquor served there must be served by a licensed bartender. At events Perreault has held, Silva says, the policy has not been followed.

Regarding electric bills, Silva says he doesn't know about an unpaid bill, but he maintains that Perreault is responsible for the electricity on her side of the building. The other side's power is paid by El Centro and other tenants.

"Part of the problem is that Therese and Elva are very strong-willed people. I am more the person who wants to work it out, but sometimes, they don't see it my way. I think that's part of the big problem. We should be able to do something," Silva says.

On Monday, April 11, Silva says, a representative from the Arizona Historical Society called him regarding this story. (We called AHS Executive Director Anne Woosley for comment, but she did not respond.)

"They wanted to inspect the building. (The AHS representative afterward) said, 'I don't see anything wrong. This is an old building.' We have been working on this building for 15 years or so, and have spent $300,000 doing restoration and repairs. We also have relied on the rents from our tenants, and if they don't pay, then we are low on funds."

Lillian Lopez-Grant, listed on the El Centro website as the board's vice president, told the Weekly she hasn't served on the board for several years.

"It's an organization with a lot of problems," Lopez-Grant says. "Entire boards have resigned because of it. I do know about the eviction, and I do really feel bad about it. (Therese) has bent over backward fixing up the place. It is in bad disrepair."

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