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No room at the inn 

Actions of the City's rooming house task force leave some frustrated, angry — and evicted

One afternoon last week, I sit with John Wilder on the porch of the rooming house he owns on Park Avenue. Only it's not a rooming house anymore.

The City of Savannah says the house's 18 tenants aren't safe remaining in the building because Wilder couldn't get a sprinkler system installed on short notice, as the City - and later a judge - demanded.

Next to the front door is a piece of bright orange paper tacked up by a City inspector, giving the tenants 48 hours to pack up and leave.

That was 48 hours ago.

A little bit of time remains before an inspector comes by with police to make sure the 88-year-old building - interestingly, originally built as a boarding house by the railroad - is padlocked.

Until then, two tenants remain on the porch, waiting on rides. Or just waiting.

They packed up their things long ago. It didn't take long, because they really didn't have much to pack.

They're "safe" now - moving into temporary situations with relatives, friends, or social service agencies, with almost no money other than the security deposits Wilder has made a point to return in full, in cash.

"And basically here we are - sitting on the front porch of a building that's been in my family ever since I can remember and it's been pretty much taken away," says building owner and property manager John Wilder.

More importantly, says Wilder of the tenants with whom he's built an unlikely but real rapport, "these people all had to go. The City and the newspaper article said no one would be displaced. As far as I'm concerned they were displaced - they had to find other places to live. They're on very limited incomes. Most likely they're going to end up in another rooming house."

The story of this now-shuttered Park Avenue rooming house is worth a closer look - not because the world needs to feel sorry for a landlord or for rooming house boarders, two constituencies who don't exactly have huge fan clubs - but because of the real world impact the City's decisions have on real people trying to get by in a challenging economy.

 

John Wilder's tenants are - were - almost all African-Americans of very low income. They span a wide age range, from fairly young to quite elderly. The majority are men, though there are a couple of women. Some have been there a few months, while one, a man in his 70s, has been there over 15 years.

All of them that I meet speak highly of Wilder and are comfortable in his presence. Out of Wilder's earshot, with nothing to lose now that he's no longer their landlord, they say the same thing.

"He's a very good landlord," says 54-year-old Vincent, a wiry man of good humor and sunny personality. "I'm sorry to be leaving here."

Vincent does have a new place to stay - "thanks to that guy," he says, pointing at Wilder, who's about 50 feet away helping other tenants load their things into vehicles. "That guy they're trying to down so much. They come at him, he fixes it, they come at him again, he fixes it - but they just keep on coming."

 

The fire department does routine checks of rooming houses all the time, Wilder says, so he wasn't worried when the Fire Marshal told him he needed "some more smoke detectors, some new exit signs, and he said my fire extinguishers were not the size they needed to be. I did all that the same day he told me."

About a week later, Wilder got a call from the City saying they needed to inspect the building.

"I came over here to meet them and was expecting to see four or five people. When I got here, not only were those people here as well as the fire department and the media - it was about 35-40 people here - the police were here too. The whole street was full of cars up and down. It was a circus."

The "circus" was the big rollout of the City's new task force to crack down on illegal rooming houses, which involved inviting the media along to document the first unfortunate example.

"There are lots of different violations that touch different departments," explains City of Savannah spokesman Bret Bell on the need for a consolidated task force. "Rooming houses aren't bad, it's just that they attract other issues like crime and loitering and property maintenance issues."

The task force picked Wilder's building, Bell says, because of police input.

"We'd been getting lots of complaints there," he says. "This house first got our attention after police made an arrest there. The officer went through and saw all these violations and brought it to the attention of the task force. This is not like some harmless B&B."

Feeling victimized by the task force photo op, Wilder didn't talk to media much that day. "I felt slapped around on all sides. It was overwhelming."

Because he kept his mouth shut, reports in the Savannah Morning News and on WSAV the next day conveyed almost exclusively the City's side of the story - including the claim that no tenants would be displaced.

The City officials, with police escort, walked through the building for the inspection, and then gathered at their vehicles.

"And that's when another City official came up to me and said ‘the real problem here is you don't have a Certificate of Occupancy,'" Wilder says. "I said, yes, actually I do. I presented that, along with my 2009 business license that said ‘rooming and boarding house' right on the license."

Then came yet another ad hoc committee meeting in the road, Wilder says, followed by a City official presenting a handwritten list of complaints.

"He said, ‘here's a list of several things that need to be done today,'" Wilder says. "And this was about four o'clock in the afternoon. He said I had 24 hours to have a licensed electrical contractor obtain a permit and install emergency lighting. He said he'd be over here at 3 p.m. the next day to see that it's all done" - thus Wilder actually had less than 24 hours to make all the repairs.

Wilder worked until late that night, including removing burglar bars from downstairs windows - the tenants didn't like that, he says - removing a deadbolt on a hallway door, and installing 16 more smoke detectors in addition to the 16 smoke detectors the Fire Marshal made him install days earlier.

As for the emergency lighting, "That afternoon I found a contractor that said they would do it. They got a permit first thing in the morning. That was an impossible feat to be done in that frame of time. But the City said if we get there and see you're working and only have a few to go, that would be fine. And that's how it went.

"That's the only time they seemed to be OK with everything."

 

Despite making the requested modifications, from there things went rapidly downhill for Wilder. Ordered to show up in Administrative Court for a preliminary hearing early the following week, Wilder and his lawyer were approached by some of the same City officials that had come by days earlier.

"One of them said ‘Things have drastically changed. We've decided that because of life safety issues we're condemning the building.'"

By "life safety issues," the City meant the rooming house needed a building-wide sprinkler system.

Wilder then found out the case was immediately - as in that day - going to Recorder's Court. "So my lawyer had basically 15 minutes to prepare a case. We were told it was just an administrative hearing. We were not prepared to argue in open court."

Judge Willie Yancey did not make a ruling that day, but said he would make a ruling that Thursday. Wilder quickly got a bid on a new sprinkler system - $28,000 - but was under the impression that the demand for a sprinkler system was on hold until the judge's ruling.

That wasn't the case. While Wilder and his lawyer were readying themselves for the Thursday court decision, the City revoked the building's Certificate of Occupancy and issued the shutdown order.

"My attorney and the City were talking about coming to some sort of agreement so everybody could be happy. We offered to evacuate the building and not reinhabit it until all upgrades were made, as long as they don't condemn the building. But they weren't budging."

Judge Yancey didn't rule that Thursday, either. He asked that both parties return to Recorder's Court on Monday, Sept. 28. When they did, Judge Yancey said the lack of a sprinkler system, in particular, was the reason he was backing the City's decision to shut the rooming house down.

"They wanted to give the tenants 24 hours to get out, but were able to get them to agree to 48," says Wilder.

 

The City of Savannah maintains that they were very involved in trying to relocate the tenants, and that contrary to Wilder's portrayal, "not all of them were sorry to leave," spokesman Bell says. "Different people have different feelings about this whole thing."

Assistant City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney concedes that the Park Avenue situation was not her ideal scenario for this kind of thing, but that the City had little real choice in the matter.

"When I know or the judge knows that their life is in danger because of violations that were as significant as they were, then you have to make that judgment call: Do you put them in a place that may not be as comfortable but is safer? And that place was simply unsafe," she says.

"I think if fate had actually demonstrated it to be unsafe, then we'd be having a different kind of conversation. It would be, ‘If you knew all this was going on why didn't you move them out of that life-threatening situation?' That's the kind of judgment call we have to make," says Small-Toney.

Bell maintains that City personnel worked with the tenants since the Monday prior to their Wednesday eviction, trying to find new housing.

"We did interviews with 11 of the tenants, and most indicated they already had places to go," Bell says. "We were able to place four of the tenants in alternative, comparable housing. Anytime we deal with rooming houses it's difficult. A lot of times when we need to address this problem it requires some vacation of the tenants until the changes can be made."

Small-Toney says the City doesn't have responsibility for the placement of the tenants in this situation - "that's the responsibility of the landlord," she says - but it does strive to help out people who might be displaced.

"In our process we certainly advise the landlord of the condition of the house. And when that order is given the judge also tells the landlord that you have X number of hours or days to remove your tenants. Even in this case he was given that time of notice very early in this process," she says.

"In terms of the task force, it has a representative from the Community Planning department who is a Neighborhood Coordinator. That individual understands how many people are potentially affected and begins trying to provide assistance, talking with other agencies or places where these people can go," says Small-Toney.

"That's not something we're required to do, but as a good steward in the community, that's something we offer to do. And we do it well."

Back on Park Avenue, Joseph, a younger tenant on his way to new housing, says, "The person from the City did help me out a lot. I will give them that."

But he's also adamant that his soon-to-be former landlord is "a good man. He's been a very good landlord. He really helped me out."

As he leaves the house for the last time, he shakes Wilder's hand, and with a slight hint of tears in his eyes, gives him a quick hug.

"I appreciate everything you've done for me, man."

 

The Rev. Micheal Elliott is the CEO of Union Mission, a nonprofit which serves the local homeless population - and therefore might have to deal with some of Wilder's former tenants one day in the future.

He says there has to be a better way.

"While the City is correct to enforce codes that protect its citizens, the impact on people's lives must be taken into account," he says.

"Homelessness in Savannah is episodic in nature. People fall into homelessness and then climb out. One of the primary reasons is the city's lack of affordable housing, especially for people who work inconsistently or earn salaries near minimum wage," says Elliott.

"Eighteen evictions at one time leads to homelessness and to overcrowded housing as people stay with friends."

While Elliott says he and Union Mission are excited that Mayor Johnson recently said the City wants to do more about homelessness, "looking at practices like this, which certainly adds to the problem, is one of the first things that we need to do."

 

While he makes a point to stay away from conspiracy theories on the subject, John Wilder does mention that in the latest property tax assessment from the county his rooming house on Park Avenue sank in value by $70,000.

"I did think that was pretty odd," he says, without further elaboration - though he would add later that "This building's value went to almost nothing when that sticker went up there," pointing to the orange document from the City tacked up beside the front door.

So now he's stuck in a horrible real estate market with a building no one can live in, and no guarantee he'll get a new Certificate of Occupancy even if he makes the suggested repairs. But of course he still has to pay his taxes.

"It's bad all the way around. They have emptied this building, and without income it's going to be hard to find the money to do these things they want done. Everything they needed done could be done with people living here," Wilder says.

"They said I could reopen as long as I met their conditions. But honestly they've said a lot of things to me already. I don't believe anything they say anymore."

Rochelle Small-Toney says if Wilder gets the building up to code properly, the City will have little choice but to honor his request to reopen it as a rooming house.

"If the zoning allows for it and the property owner brings it into compliance, we can't deny it, because authorization has already been given by virtue of the fact that the zoning approves for it to exist," she says.

"But he has to bring it up to code. That perhaps diminishes his income stream, but that's his call," she says. "He can raise weekly rates to make up that difference. It's up to him."

 

POSTSCRIPT

A few hours after I left Wilder's front porch, City inspectors came with police to make sure the building was empty.

According to Wilder, as they were leaving they noticed one of the ex-tenants, an elderly man named Dewey, leaning on Wilder's pickup truck.

"Dewey had nowhere to go, so he was out on street with the only thing he owns - a five-gallon bucket of clothes," says Wilder. "They were writing him a subpoena."

The police told him if he didn't leave the area he could be taken to jail - and might also have to pay a $1000 fine.

Angry at the harassment of the man and stunned that the whole ordeal still wasn't over, Wilder says he approached a police officer and said, "What do I have to do to make this stop?"

When he was told the man had to have a place to go, Wilder reached into his wallet, pulled out $100 in cash, and handed it to Dewey.

"I gave him a hundred bucks to get a room," he says. "Then I turned to the officer and said, ‘Is that good enough?'

"That infuriated me more than anything else that's happened," Wilder recalls. "I finally had to walk away before I said something I'd regret."

 

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

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A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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