An 84-year-old Arlington woman is facing imminent eviction from her home of 33 years because she has refused to obey her landlord's order to stop baby-sitting for a 4-year-old girl at the "adults only" Fillmore Gardens apartment complex.
"I just love her," said Mary Clark, explaining her two-year legal battle up to the Virginia Supreme Court for the right to continue baby- sitting for tiny Jessica Patterson, whom she considers her "surrogate granddaughter."
"I don't want to come across as a heartless landlord, a Simon Legree," said Elliott Burka, managing partner for the syndicate that owns Fillmore Gardens. "Evictions are never nice and never easy for either party. I don't revel in it. [But] the option was hers from Day One. All she had to do was cease her baby-sitting activity."
"Grandma Clark isn't just a baby sitter . . . . She has devoted her life to children. She loves children," said Connie Patterson, Jessica's mother and a legal secretary for the Arlington attorney who has taken up the elderly widow's cause. "If she had to sit there all day watching television, she would just die."
"It's a labor of love. Her whole life revolves around this little girl," said the attorney, Geoffrey T. Williams. "We could find her a place to go. But it's the loss of her home that's going to kill her. She's lived there 33 years . . . . She wants to stay there and continue to care for Jessica during the day."
Clark's home is a second-story, two-bedroom apartment that serves as a shrine to the 40 to 50 children for whom she has baby-sat since her husband Harry died 16 years ago. Mirrors and picture frames are ringed with snapshots of those children, each of whose current whereabouts she recites with pride. Some of the children, she points out, were referrals from the complex's rental office.
The living room is filled with Raggedy Ann dolls and stuffed animals she keeps on hand for the amusement of Jessica, who romps around the room, shoeless to muffle noise, stopping every few minutes to give "Grandma Clark" a hug during the nine hours she spends there weekdays.
"Half the time, when I go to pick her up at night, she says she wants to stay with Grandma Clark," said Patterson, whose 16-year-old son Nicky was one of Clark's first charges. "Jessica will be in school next year, so I just don't understand why [Fillmore Gardens] won't let her continue this for a little while longer."
"It's the company I love," said Clark, adding that the $70 she gets each week from Jessica's parents supplements her meager Social Security income and helps pay the $439 monthly rent.
"I'll be hard up if I can't baby-sit," she said as she crossed the room, slowly and stooped with age. "I've never had any trouble from the neighbors about the children. Never. Sometimes I had eight kids here [at once] and never a bit of trouble."
But Clark and her 53-year-old son Jimmy, who lives with her, could be out on the streets within two weeks if Williams, her attorney, cannot persuade the Virginia Supreme Court to reconsider its position.
Last Monday, the high court declined to review an Arlington Circuit Court jury's decision siding with the landlord of the 559-unit complex, which sprawls over 20 acres just off Columbia Pike in South Arlington.
Burka, the landlord, said he began eviction proceedings in January 1984 when residents complained about the child's presence. The complex went "adults only" in 1972, refusing to rent to newcomers with children and ridding itself of other families through attrition. The adults-only decision was made to cut down on vandalism caused by youngsters, Burka said.
"Mrs. Clark was baby-sitting. We asked her to stop," he said. "I had concerns about her age, her frailty, as well as [the fact] that we are an all-adult project."
Burka said he was also worried that the complex might be liable to suits if anything happened to the children there or someone was injured because of a child.
Dikran Kavaljian, the lawyer for the complex, said the apartment owners offered, futilely, to find space in a nearby church where Clark could baby-sit, and then suggested reducing her rent to offset the loss of baby-sitting income. Those discussions, he said, went nowhere.
Burka and Kavaljian contend that Clark was properly notified by flyers distributed in the complex of the decision to bar children, an assertion that her attorney, Williams, disputes.
Williams maintains that Clark's threatened eviction was in retaliation for her complaint that she was not notified of the new policy. Virginia law requires that any major change in a rental agreement have the tenant's written consent, he said. He said Clark, who has been on a month-to-month lease during her 33 years there, was never formally told of the change and did not consent.
An Arlington General District Court judge and the Circuit Court jury disagreed that the planned eviction was retaliatory.
Burka said he does not know if he would let her stay at the complex if she agreed to stop the baby-sitting. But he added, "I'm certainly not going to throw her out on the street without giving her plenty of time to make other accommodations."