The 101 former residents of Mecklenburg Mills might have been spared a lot of trouble if the city had inspected the building when the city took it over from bankrupt developers. Or if the city had made upkeep -- basic tasks, such as termite inspections -- a condition of the millions of dollars loaned to developers to turn the historic textile mill into affordable housing.
Instead, the 59 households evacuated May 12 because of termite infestation have spent nearly a month in upheaval, scrambling to find new places to live. Only four households had yet to make arrangements at press time; the other 55 have found other homes or moved in with friends or family. But many are still looking for answers -- not to mention their furniture.
They're not the only ones asking questions. Charlotte city council members want to know why termite inspection was skipped after city staff foreclosed on the building months ago. "The step was missed by the staff," said Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, chairwoman of the council's Housing and Neighborhood Development Committee. "That's kind of standard operating procedure, and for whatever reason, that was missed ... The city assumed responsibility for the people living there without knowing what the structural condition of the building was."
Stan Wilson, the city's housing services manager, offered as partial explanation that the city isn't in the business of owning apartment buildings. Wilson also pointed out that the termite discovery might not affect the city's ability to sell the building. "In some cases, when a developer buys a property, they're probably going to do substantial rehabilitation anyway," he said.
But council members Don Lochman and Burgess fear otherwise. "I don't know to what extent this latest finding is going to influence the city's [ability to sell the building]," Lochman said. "I'm sure that is being investigated."
The city acquired the building in January, nearly 16 years after it approved a $1 million loan to Trenton Property to buy and rehabilitate Johnson and Mecklenburg Mills near North Davidson and East 36th streets, according to a city memo. The project in 1990 was conceived as an ideal way to provide affordable housing and also save historic buildings. Then, as now, Charlotte struggled with a paucity of reasonably priced housing for low-income working people. In the coming years, the city would invest more money to rehab the mills.
But the loan contracts didn't require specific upkeep as a condition of the money, though the wording did grant city officials access to the mills' books, said Stanley Watkins, director of the city's Neighborhood Development department. When the developers declared bankruptcy, the city began moving to foreclose on the property. "It was the same old sad story," Lochman said. "It was mismanaged ... it deteriorated. And the city was basically left holding the bag."
City staff in January conducted an on-site visual inspection of the property, Wilson said, but they didn't do a comprehensive inspection that would have included a check for termites.
According to the city memo, between 2000 and 2001 all units were inspected and brought up to code. One unit was again inspected in 2005 and passed. But the city's code inspection department had investigated several possible violations. Creative Loafing requested copies of those files, but they did not arrive by press time. According to the city memo, the department has one open case resulting from a tenant complaining about holes in a wall that let mice enter an apartment.
The termite problem, however, wasn't discovered until flooring in an equipment room collapsed into the basement. At first, a structural engineer who examined the damage didn't think the building needed to be evacuated, and plans were made to repair the damage. But at 2pm on May 12, another engineer told the city otherwise.
An hour later, residents were told to leave their homes. Some residents left needed medicines. Others left important financial records. Most people didn't have time to grab basic items they needed in their everyday lives. So if council members are frustrated, the people who were abruptly moved to hotels were angry, bewildered and frustrated.
One former resident, Mary Griffin, has found a new home. But she didn't enjoy her time at an extended-stay hotel, where she said toilet paper wasn't provided and daily maid service wasn't standard. Access to working washers and dryers was unpredictable. Her children wore the same school clothes for four days straight.
Maedora Thomas was still at a hotel last week. She'd found a potential new apartment -- albeit a smaller one -- but she said signing a new lease is scant comfort when her bed and other belongings were still at the mill apartment. "I have nothing," said Thomas, who is displeased by how city staff has handled the debacle. "I have to start from scratch."
Neighborhood Development, which has been charged with helping these residents, was trimmed from seven people to just four in 2004, when resources were shifted to the Charlotte Housing Authority. But Watkins doesn't think the size of the department has hindered the city's response.
Much of the inconvenience, surely, can't be avoided, but if the city had discovered termites earlier, the infestation's severity might not have called for immediate evacuation. Residents might have had time to find apartments and make moving preparations -- and certainly the city could have saved taxpayers money. One thing is certain: It's cost some people a lot of heartache.
"I'm thankful to God I've got a roof over my head, you know what I'm saying?" said Griffin on May 25 while still staying at a hotel. "But these conditions -- it's dead wrong. Dead wrong."