“She was lovely,” Sandra Cruey says. “She listened. She was taking notes. She asked us what we wanted.”
Later that night, she says, Rhone called her to extend an offer that would allow her mother to renew her lease for a year.
“I’m happy that she is going to get to stay where she is for another year,” Cruey says. “I’m relieved. I just wish it hadn’t gotten to this point.”
Elsie Cruey, a former civil service worker and widow of an Army veteran, decided to share her story with me last week for a column that ran just a few days before she was expected to pack up and get out of her one-bedroom apartment. At that point, her family had tried to reach executives with Greystar but had not heard back from anyone.
On Sept. 16, Cruey received a “Notice of Lease Termination” that told her she needed to “vacate” the premises by Oct. 17. That notice cited an incident in which Cruey allegedly “refused direct instruction to leave a private meeting.”
“After being instructed to leave, you behaved in a loud and obnoxious manner, and you physically assaulted the community manager by grabbing her wrist,” it read.
Cruey denied grabbing the manager and said she didn’t know the meeting was private. It was run by a representative for Fairfax County and was about the Affordable Dwelling Unit rental program, which offers low- and moderate-income households a way to pay a reduced rent. A Fairfax County official confirmed in recent days that the meeting aimed to offer a general overview of the application and recertification process and that county staffers did not intend for it to be private.
Fairfax County is looking into five complaints that have been filed against the Overture, according to that official. The county’s office of Human Rights and Equity Programs has received four complaints of discrimination, and Consumer Affairs has received one complaint.
“I hope the Crueys’ ordeal will result in overall policy improvements that will ensure older adults are treated with the respect and sensitivity they deserve,” Sharon Bulova (D-At Large), chair of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, said in statement Wednesday. “I’m glad they spoke out and am sorry they had to go through this.”
A Greystar official on Wednesday said that, because of privacy concerns, the company couldn’t speak about a specific case but confirmed that a leadership team had met individually with most of the residents at the Overture in recent days.
“Overture Fair Ridge takes matters like these very seriously and are pleased with the positive outcome with this particular issue,” the company said in a statement. “We are revisiting our processes to ensure all such matters are handled as sensitively as possible.”
Sandra Cruey says when she called her mom to tell her that she wouldn’t have to move, her response was, “Yawhoo!” She then started saying “God bless,” followed by the names of different people who had helped her.
“I could hear and feel the happiness and smile in her voice,” she says.
The family doesn’t know what will happen after a year. They also hope the company will put in place changes that will ensure other residents don’t have to fear getting hit with lease violations for seemingly small rule-breaking. One former resident described people receiving violations for cursing and taking an extra sausage at breakfast.
Elsie Cruey’s cookie violation was documented in an email that was sent to her daughter. It described how she was “stopped from taking a partial gallon of milk” at breakfast and was later that day observed “taking a plate full of cookies” at a mix-and-mingle.
The next day, according to the lease violation, “the resident and Community Manager had a conversation and the resident admitted to taking the cookies and having them with milk before bedtime.”
Cruey denied that version of events. She said her friends baked those cookies and wanted her to try them. She insisted that she shared them with two friends the next day.
When I first met Cruey, I asked her why she wanted to publicly share her story. She said she had formed friendships since moving into the complex in May 2018 and didn’t want management “doing this to my friends one at a time when they come up for a new lease.”
She recognized that the issue was bigger than her — even if she couldn't have realized just how much bigger.
After that initial column ran, several people who claimed to have parents at the Overture wrote to me about their worries and shared stories that, if true, are concerning. People also wrote from across the country about their own senior housing woes.
“My mother who is 88 was also asked to leave her ‘forever home’ in an assisted living facility for completely absurd reasons,” wrote a person who noted that “it’s a big problem in Montgomery county too!”
“What you have found here in this facility is NOT an isolated case,” wrote a home health aide from New York. That person described a manager at a senior building putting baby monitors in residents’ apartments to listen in on their conversations.
“There are horror stories in all senior HUD housing,” wrote a person who described getting an eviction notice after a fire alarm in a hallway went off three times because a gap in her door allowed smoke from cooking to escape. “They bully tenants and instill fear in the elderly.”
Other people who had never met Cruey wanted to know whether they could contribute money toward her legal fees — which the family politely declined — and inquired about whether she needed temporary housing. She was offered a free hotel room in Fairfax and a place in an apartment housing complex in Kansas.
And then there were the cookies. So many cookies. People wrote to find out Cruey’s favorite type and to get the Overture’s mailing address so they could satisfy every sweet tooth there.
“Would you kindly tell this apartment complex I will supply cookies for every open resident community event please?” one person wrote.
“I would like to send the facility a few dozen cookies so they don’t have to waste their time looking out for cookie monsters,” someone in Southern California wrote.
“If it will help your company stop picking on little old ladies for taking a few extra cookies home with them for a late night snack, contact me,” a person in Philadelphia wrote. “I would be happy to donate a monthly gathering of cookie platters to help offset any cookie losses Ms. Elsie may have caused. For the record, I would not have any issue at all if the facility manager helped themselves to any leftover cookies, to have as a late night snack.”
After one package of homemade cookies arrived for her mother, Sandra Cruey called the woman to thank her. She left a message with her mom’s phone number. The two women later talked and discussed the husbands they had lost. They also spoke about the possibility of meeting each other one day.
“It is just truly heartwarming,” Sandra Cruey says. “I think about this lady baking cookies and I think about her packing them up and I think about her going to the post office to send them, and how much effort all that took. But she did it.”
She and her sisters saw the negative side of her mother stepping forward. Strangers dug into her past and posted online about convictions that dated long before she moved into the Overture. A public records search shows that most were misdemeanors and related to using profane, threatening or indecent language over a public airway.
But the siblings also saw what Sandra Cruey describes as a “domino effect of goodness.” They saw people speaking up about how the elderly should be treated in this country and people offering understanding because they, too, have parents who are in senior housing or might one day need to be. They saw strangers who, even if it was through a bit of flour and butter, felt compelled to right a wrong.
Cruey says that her mother doesn’t need any more sweets. Her hope is that now, people will take the kindness behind that gesture and extend it to others.
Even so, Elsie Cruey should probably keep her fridge stocked with milk for a little while longer.
On Tuesday night, shortly after the family heard from Greystar, my office phone rang. On the other end was a woman who said she didn’t have an email account and needed Cruey’s address.
She explained — although she didn’t have to — that she wanted to bake her some cookies.