Questions or comments? Contact Jeff Sykes at jeff@yesweekly

Currently a heritage of dunces

The first thing you feel is the heat. The weight of the oppressive air hits you just before the odor. It’s the odor that is hardest to deal with, the smell of urine, heaviest in the stairwell, lingers still in the hallway on the first floor.

On the second floor I could take only about five minutes of the combined heat and odor. But the pitch-black darkness of the second floor added to the disturbing thought that people, including 50 children, live here.

It’s called Heritage House. I’m not sure whose heritage is embodied here, but the future needs to be different. People shouldn’t be living like this. Residents and community activists had been making noise for a couple of weeks, but I had no idea the conditions at the high-rise on West Meadowview Road in Greensboro would be this bad. Not a just a few miles from where the city and the private sector plan to spend $60 million or so on a high-class performing arts center.

There are 177 rental units in the Heritage House. The few residents I spoke to described an open-ended drug market in the courtyard and in the hallways. One man who spoke to me as I left said young men stand in the hallways, much like the black as night hallway I walked through on the second floor, and offer to sell drugs.

“What do you need, man? I hear that every day,” David said.

Police have been called to Heritage House 2,860 times in the last 12 months, according to city officials. David says that police come in the front looking for drug dealers who run out the back, through an alley and up to the storefronts on Randleman Road.

Another resident agreed with City Councilman Mike Barber, who called for Heritage House to be shut down. Rochetta Cheek said the only hope for the place, which her mother has lived in for four years, is for everything to be torn out and replaced. The carpet, the furniture, the windows. Cheek said that children suffer with a lack of recreation, in addition to the at times squalid living conditions.

“The only thing for them to do is play in this courtyard,” Cheek said as she surveyed the open area in the rear of the building. “But it’s so much going on in the courtyard. It’s nasty out here. It’s just unsafe. Everybody needs to just let it go. People want to save it, but there isn’t no saving to it. There is no saving this building.”

Cheek said her mother, who lives on the sixth floor, has battled bed bugs for more than two years. “If they want people to stay then they need to come in here and rip out everything,” Cheek said. “You have people that come in here that don’t live here and throw trash, robbing, buying drugs, selling drugs, prostitution. It’s just everything in here.”

On June 25, city officials swept through the seven-story complex on West Meadowview Road, just down the street from the glimmering glass front of the city’s transportation operations center. Police provided security for inspectors, who had reached the fifth floor by late afternoon. Media types were allowed an hour or two in the early afternoon to talk with residents and interact with city workers doing their best amidst the heat of a hot summer day.

Stunned residents, many in wheelchairs or with canes, seemed to grasp what bit of dignity they could as they went about their business amidst the frenzy of attention.

I was left wondering why the proper attention or enforcement was lacking in the first place, a question few city officials seemed prepared to answer.

City officials said they had inspected the entire building in Dec. 2012, and had open housing cases since that time, meaning an inspector was in the building at least once every 45 days.

But after last week’s inspection, code enforcement found more than 800 violations, including 99 out of 177 units lacking basic housing requirements such as a working smoke detector. A total of 139 units, fully 79 percent of the occupied condos, were cited for violations of the minimum housing code.

Just look at the numbers. Damaged or non-functioning electrical in 103 units. Sixty-three units with unsanitary conditions. Roaches in 66 units. Bed bugs in 35.

An animated owner who I came across just before leaving said that he does his best to screen his clients. But with no one controlling owner, and a weak homeowners association that currently is $55,000 behind on its water bill, there seemed little he could do to force compliance from others.

The man said part of the problem was that the city had shut down low-cost motels like Greensboro Inn and that those residents, who need the least affordable housing possible, had simply migrated, along with drug dealing, prostitution and other crimes, to the Heritage House.

But the lack of one clear responsible party is perhaps the first obstacle to be overcome. A city official said earlier this week that a letter would be posted at the property in coming days giving notice that the past due water bill had to be paid, or the water service could be shut off. Some housing advocates in the community have suggested placing the property in receivership, a courtordered management structure that could work to quickly improve living conditions for residents while the confederacy of dunces that own the place come to see the light.

District One Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who represents the area on city council, made it clear that her priority was to protect the dignity and humanity of the residents living in Heritage House. She declined to project what steps the city might be contemplating, but her intentions were clear as she took a break in between inspections last week.

“This time around we are going to offer some permanent solutions,” Hightower said. “It’s not going to be the same old, same old. They’re not just going to fix these things and then go back and ignore it. We are there and we are committed to making sure the living conditions improve and stay improved. If that involves some type of legal action we are prepared to look at doing some of that as well.” !