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The story behind this curious situation is a cautionary tale of personal friendship and kindheartedness that took a hard turn into bitter animosity, a claimed assault and a court-issued protective order. It hinges on the surprising difference between a "guest" and a "tenant" under Virginia law.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Jeana and Tony Azar of Roanoke County said they feel like they are hostages in their own house after letting a friend stay with them for nine months.
Courtesy Azar family
Teresa Martin’s arrangement with Jeana and Tony Azar went sour months after Martin moved into their basement.
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Never before has this column ventured into a landlord-tenant dispute. They’re often messy affairs with little larger significance. But the case of Jeana Azar was hard to resist. She’s a homeowner and the “landlord.”
Back on Valentine’s Day, Azar’s former friend and current “tenant,” Teresa Martin, got Azar kicked out of her own house. Azar is back in it now.
The story behind this curious situation is a cautionary tale of personal friendship and kindheartedness that took a hard turn into bitter animosity, a claimed assault and a court-issued protective order. It hinges on the surprising difference between a “guest” and a “tenant” under Virginia law.
The two women were in Roanoke County General District Court on Wednesday, and they’ll be back there March 11. In the meantime, they’re both still living in Azar’s southwest Roanoke County home — and walking on eggshells.
Azar, 51, a jewelry vendor and mother of four, told me she met Martin in classes at Virginia Western Community College more than 20 years ago. Since then, they’ve bumped into each other here and there around town, but that was about it.
Martin, 52, told me that until May, she had lived in Kentucky for the better part of a decade, but visited Roanoke frequently. Last spring her 10-year marriage ended in divorce, which left her homeless, she said. In May, she reached out by telephone to Azar, whom she had seen occasionally on her visits here.
Both women agree Azar invited Martin to stay in the Azars’ modest brick rancher on Thompsons Lane, off Colonial Avenue. Azar’s husband, Tony Azar, was fine with the temporary arrangement. They’ve helped out others the same way before, he said.
“She said, ‘I don’t have much to offer you. I can offer you a bed so you can get re-established,’ ” Martin told me.
Martin has lived rent-free in the Azars’ basement storage room ever since. That was about nine months ago.
About here is where their stories greatly diverge.
At first, Martin said, she helped out with chores around the house and drove Azar’s teenage son and daughter around town, and that she also became very close to them. Things went OK in the house.
She stopped helping out, she said, when she realized that the Azar teenagers did no household chores themselves. To Martin, they seemed spoiled and she didn’t like that.
Jeana Azar “wanted me to be her house bitch — that’s the word she used. She wanted me to be their taxicab driver. She wanted me to be their housekeeper,” Martin told me.
“It’s not my responsibility. It’s her house, her kids, and her responsibility. It takes a pretty low human being to take advantage of somebody who’s down and out.”
Jeana Azar said Martin did get close to the teens for a while. But Martin rarely if ever helped out around the house.
“It got to the point where she wanted to be waited upon,” Azar said. Eventually, Martin began injecting herself into the family’s business, which rankled Jeana Azar.
Both women said there were few problems until about two months ago when their friendship seriously soured and the atmosphere in the house became poisonous.
Martin told me a lot private family stuff about the Azars that’s frankly hard to believe. It painted a very unkind picture.
So I asked her: “If it was that bad, why didn’t you move out a long time ago?” She couldn’t find a place in a decent neighborhood that she could afford, she replied.
Things came to a head on Feb. 13, at a time when Tony Azar was in Lebanon visiting his 81-year-old mother, who was dying.
In the Azars’ kitchen, Martin said Jeana Azar encouraged her to move out and “called me a freeloader.” Martin, who’s held a job for months, went down to the basement family room where she sat at Azar’s computer. Azar went down there to continue the discussion.
“She grabbed my arm, and almost pushed me out of the chair,” Martin told me. She said Azar added “you know, I’m a sharpshooter.”
Martin took that as a threat, because Tony Azar owns some hunting rifles. She said she called Roanoke County police, who advised her to see a court magistrate the next morning.
On Feb. 14, Martin appeared before General District Court Judge Jacqueline Talevi, who issued a preliminary protective order that day. Later that night Martin arrived at the Azars’ home with a county police escort. They informed Jeana Azar she had to leave her own home because of the order.
The guest had kicked the homeowner out of her own house.
Azar spent the night with her mother in Roanoke. Meanwhile, Tony Azar learned what had happened from his 18-year-old daughter Maya, who called him in Lebanon, crying over the phone. He changed his plans and came home early. (His mother died before he could get back there. He missed her funeral.)
On Feb. 15, Talevi met with both women and allowed Azar back in her house. But she warned them to stay away from each other.
Azar also learned that Martin is no guest, even though she has never paid a dime in rent. Under Virginia law she’s a tenant and she has certain rights. The Azars have to follow a legal process to evict her.
Roanoke lawyer Grimes Creasy, who has practiced Virginia landlord-tenant law for 23 years and teaches it at judicial conferences, said that’s how the system works. He’s been involved in cases like this in the past. Usually it involves a boyfriend or girlfriend who are living together and have a big fight.
Even if the girlfriend is not on the lease, and is paying no rent, the law confers certain tenants rights. If the girlfriend alleges an assault and obtains a protective order, he said, the boyfriend is going to have to move out of the apartment at least temporarily.
Any guest who stays longer than 30 days can probably assert tenant rights, he said.
“I know how you’re looking at it — that this sounds crazy,” Creasy said. When he ran across a similar case early in his career, Creasy thought to himself, “it can’t be this way.” A more experienced lawyer explained to him: “This is that classic, no-good-deed-goes-unpunished situation.”
Jeana Azar is certainly feeling that way now.
She says she never touched Martin or threatened her or breathed a word about sharpshooting. She simply wants Martin out of her house.
These days, Azar is afraid to be in her own home when Martin is the only other person there. She’s concerned Martin might allege a bogus assault and file charges. So for the past two weeks, friends, neighbors and relatives of the Azars have been rotating into their household, as minders.
“We feel like hostages in our own home,” Tony Azar said. Eviction proceedings against Martin are under way. The hearing is March 11.
In court Wednesday, Judge Talevi told the women, “This is an untenable situation and it has been from the beginning.” By March 11, “Ms. Martin, you should be prepared to explain why you should be permitted to remain in the house,” Talevi said. The judge strongly advised Martin to be prepared to move out by that date. It hinted of eviction.
Teresa Martin has some experience with that.
Despite her claims to me that she had moved to Roanoke from Kentucky in 2012, there are two separate eviction proceedings in the past three years against a Teresa Martin in Roanoke County General District Court. I spoke with one of those plaintiffs, Susan Chau, on Thursday.
Via Craiglist, Chau rented a room to a Teresa Martin in 2011. After a few months, Chau asked Martin to leave. “Let’s just say it didn’t work out between us,” Chau told me. Martin refused to move out. Chau had to go to court to evict her. The process took more than 30 days.
Martin vehemently denied renting from Chau or anyone else in Roanoke in the past 10 years. “There are a lot of Teresa Martins,” she told me.
But Chau was able to describe Martin almost perfectly in terms of age, height, build, complexion, hairstyle and hair color. Thursday night, I showed Chau a photograph of Martin. Chau said: “That’s her.”
Martin told me she expects to be out of the Azars’ house by today. She’s house-sitting for a friend for the next week, she said.
The Azars can’t wait.
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