Lily Hixon flung open her kitchen cupboards with pride. "Look," she said, doing a Vanna White impression as she gestured to boxes of cereal and crackers. "I like everything organized."
The one-bedroom Monrovia apartment decked out in Ikea has been Hixon's introduction to independent living, a privilege the 25-year-old born with Down syndrome still can't believe is hers. Built on an old rail yard, Regency Court Apartments is a quiet, mini-neighborhood of sage-green apartments and bungalows where Hixon greets neighbors with a wave.
But last month, she and about 20 other physically or developmentally disabled tenants, some of whom have lived in the affordable housing complex for more than a decade, were notified that their leases were being terminated.
The management firm that took over the facility two years ago told the tenants there had been a mistake and they never should have been allowed to move in. Regency Court, the letter said, was always meant to be a senior apartment community, and those under age 62 would have to leave. It offered a brief apology.
Located among a row of houses in a quiet neighborhood, Regency Court is close to bus lines, within walking distance of jobs that people with disabilities might land and accepts Section 8 housing vouchers. It seemed a perfect fit for people who want to live on their own but are susceptible to predators.
Parents of the disabled say part of the complex's allure is the symbiotic relationship between the senior and disabled communities where both move a little slower than the outside world and neither presents a threat.
"If we'd sat down years ago and tried to dream up this package, we wouldn't have gotten it half as good as this," said Hixon's father, Ken. "That's part of the parents' anguish right now -- that now we're back to zero. How do we replicate this?"
Upset and unsure of what to do, residents and family members contacted the Housing Rights Center, which has filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging discrimination based on age and disability.
Regency Court has failed to provide proof that its funding restricts the complex to seniors, said Michelle Uzeta of the Housing Rights Center.
"This is a complex that since it opened in 1995 has advertised to and served a disabled and senior client base," Uzeta said. "Even if they are supposed to be senior housing and have been acting inappropriately for the last 15 years, the answer would not be terminating everybody's residency."
Craig Diamond, an attorney who represents the owner and the management firm, said Regency Court is clearly defined as senior apartment housing, and a resolution in the matter will be determined by the state and county agencies that help fund the property. He declined to identify the agencies.
"Until I heard from the lawyer for the tenants, I had no clue as to the special circumstances surrounding these individuals," said Diamond, who wrote the lease termination letters. "It should also be said that the regulators, management and owners are working really hard to try to get this matter resolved."
Regency Court is owned by Star-Holdings of Illinois and managed by Professional Property Management, both of which are headquartered in Rockford, Ill.
Many of the residents at risk of being forced out are graduates of Taft College near Bakersfield, which has placed developmentally disabled graduates of its adult life skills program at Regency for 10 years.
"What's interesting is we talk about what gets you evicted in one of our class components," said Jeff Ross, director of student support services at Taft. "But these guys didn't trash their apartments. They paid their rent on time. They have done everything right. They graduated from high school, went to college to learn how to live independently, got a job. Then the rug started to be pulled out from underneath them."
Ross said that before the school's first students were placed at Regency Court, staff members verified that the complex accepted both senior citizens and disabled residents.
For Taft graduates Matt and Laura Fosbury, both 29, the upstairs apartment they share has been a newlywed nest. Framed photos of the two kissing and laughing cover the walls, and cards congratulating them on their recent one-year anniversary sit on the counter.
During the day, Matt works as a cart collector at Target and Laura clears tables at a hospital cafeteria. They take pleasure in simple things like making a dinner of enchiladas, balancing the family finances or going out for an ice cream shake. If the couple can't live at Regency Court, they worry they'll be forced to return to their families' homes and lose their independence.
"My dream was to have my own apartment, and that dream came true," Laura said. "I do not want to go back to living with my parents."
Some, like Frankie Mae Platt, don't even have that option. Platt won't turn 62 until next year and has been asked to leave.
Suffering from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis when she signed the lease 14 years ago, Platt is unable to work and worries that she won't be able to find safe, low-income housing in the area.
For the time being, Uzeta said Regency Court had verbally agreed to hold off on revoking the leases but offered nothing in writing. Until a decision is made, tenants worry about losing the home life they've created.
Hixon said an eviction would force her to leave the neighborhood and her job bagging groceries at a nearby market. But she said she's more concerned about losing neighbors who take time to understand a young woman whose facial expressions say what her sometimes garbled speech does not.
"Here I can go slow with words and take my time, and people around me understand," she said. "They're like my family."