Sonja Lee says she had been struggling to find a job and  kept in communication with property managers before receiving the notice.

By Jason Duaine Hahn
August 20, 2020
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Courtesy Sonja Lee
| Credit: Courtesy Sonja Lee

Sonja Lee, a mother to two boys, was left in tears after receiving an eviction notice with an emoji following weeks of struggle during the coronavirus outbreak.

The 33-year-old tells PEOPLE she lost her job following the pandemic's start and has been applying to jobs using online services. Making matters worse, Lee says she was recently hired for a job that turned out to be a "scam," and was left three months behind rent because of the setback.

"I was overwhelmed because, to be honest, I felt like I was in a big hole and I couldn't get out of it because I was set back so much," says Lee, who lives at The Steeples apartment complex in Houston. "So it's like, I'm a single mother with two boys. I do the best that I can and am a very hard-working woman."

"I was scared," she adds. "I didn't know what I was going to do after exhausting all of my resources from calling 211, local health assistance, and wasn't able to get through, I didn't know what to do."

Lee says she kept in communication with property managers about her situation, which improved when she was hired for a job set to begin on Aug. 24.

But on Monday afternoon, Lee found the eviction notice on her door.

"Guess who's moving? You!!!" the message began, followed by a large smiling emoji. "Pay your outstanding balance, or release your apartment and turn in your keys to the leasing office by 6:00 p.m. today. Eviction will be filed promptly Tuesday morning, 8/18/2020."

Sonja Lee, with her sons Patrick, 12, and Sean, 2
| Credit: GoFundMe

The notice, and the insensitivity in how it was delivered, was a punch to the gut during a painful chapter for her family, Lee says.

"I was mad, I ain't going to lie," she recalls of receiving the letter. "I didn't think it was funny at all. I felt like they were antagonizing the tenants through the situation and it was heartless, especially during a pandemic."

"A lot of people have lost their jobs," Lee continues. "A lot of people aren't able to get the resources. I was denied unemployment five times."

After local news stations picked up Lee's story, Swapnil Agarwal, CEO of Karya Property Management — which operates The Steeples complex — apologized on behalf of the company.

"Buck stops with me, so yes, I do personally apologize," Agarwal told KTRK. "I wish I had the time and the resources to reach out personally to every one of them who have dealt with any issues at our properties. But I am apologizing personally in case it was insensitive, and if she was really trying to work out a payment program with the property or that she was in communication with the manager, then I accept it's truly our fault."

Agarwal told the outlet the manager who wrote the eviction letter has been "reprimanded." Lee is also not under eviction, she added.

Lee said a regional manager with Karya Property Management — which did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment — reached out to her and apologized for the incident.

Since sharing her story, Lee has started a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for her and her two children, 2-year-old Sean and 12-year-old Patrick, which has raised over $11,500. It has helped to rekindle her spirits, she says.

"Despite what you may go through, the trials and tribulations that might be thrown at you, never give up," Lee explains. "When it feels like you don't have nothing else left in you, that's when blessings will start pouring. So when you feel like there's nothing left, if you have faith, keep your faith, stay strong, and just stay positive because blessings are real and miracles do happen within a blink of an eye."

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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