When Angie Smiths daughter was born, she made sure to keep her infant in her arms or a swing. If Arabella stopped moving, the roaches would start crawling all over her.
It was the worst roach problem Ive ever seen, Smith said.
Smith paid $270 per week to live in Americas Best Value Inn near Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield County for eight months with Arabella and her two other children. The motel room allowed her to get away from her on-again, off-again relationship with her babys father, and also provided relief from a home mortgage and other bills.
In an increasingly impoverished Chesterfield, an affordable housing scarcity, coupled with credit and background requirements for apartments, has led hundreds of people like Smith to settle for months or years at motels, many along the Jeff Davis corridor. This past school year, 160 Chesterfield students lived in hotels or motels. Across the state, nearly 3,000 students found shelter the same way.
It is up to county and state inspectors to enforce regulations designed to protect people from unhealthy conditions at the motels. The fear of eviction leaves many motel residents feeling powerless to complain about the conditions, so the inspectors ability to investigate complaints and proactively inspect properties is critical.
On the local level, however, hundreds of Chesterfield inspection reports indicated that inspectors examined two mobile home parks more than three nearby motels. And year after year, state health inspection reports of three Chesterfield motels described similar problems.
My suspicion is that many localities turn a blind eye to the really horrible living conditions in a lot of these extended-stay motels, said Phil Storey, an attorney with Richmonds Legal Aid Justice Center, which provides services to low-income individuals.
Chesterfield officials and poverty and housing advocates say affordable housing is a nationwide problem and serious issues exist at some motels, but they differ in how they talk about addressing the problem.
County planners say that the county is playing its part in tackling affordable housing in the region and that Chesterfield has a large stock of affordable housing units. Poverty and housing advocates call on localities like Chesterfield to take a more active role.
In the meantime, many families are at the mercy of the motel owners, living in the kinds of conditions that Smith said she wouldnt wish on anyone.
In May, Trimaine Minnie Reed opened her dresser drawer to find cockroaches crawling over her socks and underwear. She has lived with the roaches for three years at Americas Best, now in Room 120 after moving from another room where she said the bathroom ceiling had caved in.
Reed is one of the few residents who have taken the battle to court. She asserted her rights under the Landlord-Tenant Act when B.R. Patel, Americas Best owner, tried to remove her for failing to pay her rent. Because Reed had stayed at the motel longer than 90 days, Patel was legally required to issue her an eviction-related notice. On the court date for the eviction proceeding, Reed planned to tell a judge about the motels conditions.
Patel referred questions to his lawyer, R. Glen Morgan, who said, Theres plenty of other hotels. Obviously, its not that bad or she would leave.
The owners of two other motels that also have significant tenant populations, the Virginian Motel and Par 3 Motel, declined to comment or didnt respond to multiple requests for comment.
Most of the motel tenants arent like Reed. Instead, they silently count down the months or years until they can move out, or drift to another motel. After her tax-return money came in, Smith moved her family into a cheaper rental cabin in Chesterfield where she pays $200 a week.
Some people just slip through the cracks, Smith said.
Less than a mile from Americas Best Value Inn, Twonneil Butlers son once scraped a leg when the bathroom floor at the Virginian gave out beneath him. When Butler asked to have the floor fixed, it took a week for the owner to provide a piece of plywood that could patch up the hole, Butler said.
He later found all of his belongings scattered in the Virginians parking lot after he didnt pay his rent. His things were eventually stolen or thrown in dumpsters. The Virginians owner declined to comment.
Its Pay me or get out, Butler said. Things need to change. The upkeep needs to be taken care of.
On the state level, health inspection reports of three motels told a story of persistent problems.
The Virginia Department of Health is the only agency with the power to inspect the inside of hotel rooms at any time for their overall condition, as long as those rooms are vacant and ready to rent. VDH does not inspect mobile home parks because those are private residences, but it does go above state requirements by inspecting about 10 percent of rooms in all Chesterfield hotels.
Four of five state health inspection reports from 2014 to 2016 at Americas Best Value Inn noted unspecified insects, roaches or bedbugs. Six customer complaints were filed in the same period because of roaches or bedbugs. On two separate inspections from January 2014, mice droppings were observed.
Citations of health code violations werent unique to Americas Best Value Inn. The Par 3 Motel and Virginian Motel both received complaints about bed bugs, with social services at one point assisting an elderly man and his mother moving out of an infested room at the Virginian.
That should send a red flag to an inspector. Even if it is a small problem, if its the same problem year after year it should send a red flag, said Dennis OConnor, environmental health supervisor for the Chesterfield Health District.
Following up on cited violations depends on the severity of the situation, OConnor said, and for minor problems, were going to hope they correct it.
In Chesterfield, the Bermuda Estates and Shady Hill mobile home parks are less than 20 miles from the Par 3 Motel, Virginian Motel and Americas Best Value Inn along the Jeff Davis corridor. With the exception of the Par 3, the properties lie in an area the county identified as needing proactive inspections.
But in the past decade, Chesterfield inspectors opened cases in the two mobile home parks six times more often than at the three motels, according to a review of more than 350 Chesterfield building and zoning inspection records. This was even though the fewer inspections at the motels revealed more serious issues.
That is concerning to me, no doubt about it. I would have to do some research on that. (The disparity) should be an oversight, if at all. We are concerned about every facility in the county, said Supervisor James Holland, whose district includes part of the corridor.
Deputy County Administrator William Dupler said there is a whole lot more opportunity for violations to occur at the mobile home parks. Local inspectors can examine inside motel rooms only on the rare occasion that they obtain a warrant or they are invited into a room by the resident or the motel owner. But, like at the nearby mobile home parks, local inspectors are able to issue violations for external red flags like damaged siding, mold, trash, crumbling structures, or cracked paint and windows.
Care and maintenance of a property is not the countys responsibility. Its the owners responsibility, Dupler said. By and large these mobile home park owners dont maintain their properties to the same standard as the motel owners do.
Inoperable vehicles or discarded materials like old furniture or baby seats sitting outside were among the most common violations at the mobile home parks. At the motels, however, the fewer inspections revealed vermin, collapsed stairs and, in one case, a septic tank at Par 3 leaking into nearby woods.
An anonymous complaint prompted the inspection that revealed the leaking septic tank. Over the past decade, it often took complaints for an issue at the motels to come to the attention of county building or zoning inspectors.
A woman temporarily staying at Americas Best Value called the county in February 2016 with complaints about holes in the walls, inoperable door locks and bugs crawling on the beds. An inspector closed the case a month later, saying the owner said all problems have been corrected.
The story was different at the two mobile home parks, where greater numbers of proactive inspections contributed to the much higher tide of violations.
Chesterfield Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle, who represents part of the Jeff Davis corridor, said the centralization provided by the countys new Community Enhancement Department will help with the motels issues.
One of the goals of the Department of Community Enhancement is to centralize many of the aspects of revitalization and redevelopment. I believe with the police, fire and EMS, social services, building and zoning working as a group, many of the issues you mentioned will be at the forefront and more pressure will be put on landlords to make the necessary improvements, Jaeckle wrote in an email.
Its unclear how many more cases may have been opened if the fear of eviction didnt hang over many of the motel residents or if there had been more proactive inspections.
When someone stays at the motel for longer than 90 days, they have rights under the Landlord-Tenant Act, including that landlords cant retaliate against tenants for lodging complaints. But the law often doesnt offer its intended protection, said Marcellinus L.M.B Slag, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. Landlords often simply claim in court that the eviction wasnt connected to the tenants prior complaint.
Its an exploited population, Slag said.
Outside a Chesterfield courtroom in early July, Reed held a folder of papers and some photos of her room that she wanted to show the judge. Reed said she felt like a hostage because she feared leaving her room might mean she would be locked out.
Its an exploited population, Slag said.
Last Tuesday, in a room not far from Reeds at Americas Best, Liliana Ratliff played with a moldy vent broken off from the air-conditioning unit in early August. Water sprinkled from the rumbling machine and soaked the carpet. The 2-year-old then sauntered over to the bathroom, where roach traps sat near her bare feet and patches of mold stained the walls. In the main room, her mother, Kelsey, packed stuffed animals and clothes while Lilianas 5-week-old sister sat in a swing.
Three Chesterfield police officers who knocked on the familys door that morning told Kelsey Ratliff that she and her children had to leave for failing to pay rent. The family had stayed at Americas Best for longer than 90 days, but because they had switched rooms about two months ago because of the conditions in their previous room, Ratliff said she wasnt protected under the Landlord-Tenant Act. Ratliff wasnt sure where they would stay that night. All of the nearby extended-stay motels were booked, and she needed something that was $200 a week or less.
Nearly two dozen people living in motels along Jefferson Davis like Ratliff gave a common reason for why they werent living somewhere else: The motels are the best they can afford.
A Chesterfield committee recently called housing affordability an economic trend of concern, noting that someone earning the $7.25 hourly minimum wage would have to work at least 89 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment rental in the county, where the median rent is $1,123. That trend, the committee continued, could affect the entire county in terms of stunted business growth, increased public safety calls and less tax revenue, among other things.
At the same time, the total number of people living in poverty in Chesterfield increased by 107 percent between 2000 and 2015, to 24,002. A family of four earning below $24,257 was considered living below the federal poverty line in 2015.
The problem isnt confined to Chesterfields borders. According to the 2017 Out of Reach report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Virginia is ranked 11th on a list of the most unaffordable states in the U.S. for renters.
Dupler, the deputy county administrator, said that if Chesterfield had the solution, so would the rest of the nation.
We dont like the fact that these motels have transitioned to housing for people. We dont think that is right. But we didnt transition them to housing for people. I think you ought to go ask the (motel) owners about it. What are they doing to provide affordable housing for people? Dupler said, adding that Chesterfield has a large stock of affordable housing. What is within our authority to address it? There are not a lot of tools out there to address it.
Housing advocates called for mandatory minimums for affordable housing units in new developments to address the huge scarcity of affordable housing along the corridor and throughout the county. They also called for greater transparency in the apartment application process and a broad rental subsidy program that could start off as a pilot partially funded by the county.
The Chesterfield Towne Center area and a wide span of the county should be priority areas for affordable housing development, according to a recently released report by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. There are 67,000 more modest-wage jobs than low-cost housing units in a suburban doughnut around the city of Richmond.
We dont have a regulation today that requires affordable dwelling units as a percentage of a development. Some metropolitan areas do have those, said Kirk Turner, Chesterfields former planning director and new head of the Community Enhancement Department. We just havent gotten there yet. Thats not to say that might not be in our future, but it isnt today.
A coalition created by officials in Portland, Ore., helped preserve 11 buildings that provide affordable housing. Rockville, Md., adopted a plan to replace a failing strip mall with a town center that required 15 percent of 644 units to be affordable.
Those two examples were cited in a study commissioned by the Partnership for Housing Affordability, on which Dupler serves as a board member.
Were participating in some regional efforts to affect the housing affordability issue. Its a tough nut to crack, Dupler said. He added that the county recently expanded a tax credit program for homeowners who rehabilitate their homes.
Discussions over revisions to two of Chesterfields high-level plans are ongoing, including revisions to one plan aimed at revitalizing the northern section of the corridor that calls for more affordable housing options.
Just laying out a plan without zoning or financial incentives is going to be a challenge, said Greta Harris, the president of the nonprofit Better Housing Coalition whose aim is to increase quality affordable housing in the region. Quality affordable housing is not inexpensive. So that is where the political will comes in. We need policy, mandates, to get private and nonprofit working in concert with one another.
Supervisor Holland said he believes the county could encourage developers more to be socially conscious to improve affordable housing along the corridor, and was pleased with the countys willingness to waive fees for developers who want to build along Jeff Davis. Carrie Coyner, who is Jaeckles counterpart on the School Board and who represents the Jeff Davis corridor, said the countys plans should call for more affordable housing options in such a way that the countys average salary is reflected in each elementary school zone.
Housing advocates also suggested a broad rental subsidy program funded in part by the county.
Across the nation, 3 of every 4 eligible low-income renter households do not receive federal rental assistance due to funding shortages. The number of unassisted renter households with worst-case housing needs rose by more than 30 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That means long waiting lists are common. Its unclear how long a waiting list is for a federal program that enables low-income families to choose and lease affordable housing in the Chesterfield and Colonial Heights areas because that waiting list is now closed. The program served 501 households in 2016.
County officials responded by saying a program like that would probably be administered by the state or federal government.
For those who do have enough money to pay rent, there are then hurdles in the apartment application process like credit and background checks.
Youre one medical problem, one loss of a job, from ruining your credit. A middle-income family with one judgment against them is one step away from that person in a hotel. And that should scare everyone, Coyner said. If we want to truly change the lives of people who are living in overpriced housing, we would be out there meeting one person at a time to rebuild their credit.
Jaeckle, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman, wrote in an email that the countys social services department is working to help people become financially independent.
Christine Marra, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said housing providers should be required to publicize their tenant selection criteria.
Many landlords are using third-party screening companies, and it is not uncommon for these companies to get it wrong. They are doing searches that are using a portion of peoples names, she said, adding that those searches often look for past arrests that didnt necessarily lead to a conviction.
Advocates said that for the immediate future, localities should value mobile home parks. Their median monthly cost, according to one study looking at 20 area jurisdictions, is $400 less than the $993 median monthly home cost in the region.
We sort of overlooked our mobile homes as affordable housing, but some of our mobile homes are valuable assets. And we want to make sure we are protecting them, Coyner said.
Nineteen mobile home parks consisting of 1,657 units still exist in Chesterfield, though the countys 2017 housing report noted that it is the only housing type in the county to shrink since 2001, reducing by a total of 25 percent because they either shut down or were redeveloped.
Its not a place to raise children, Pam Steele said of the motels. But where are they going to go if (Americas Best Value Inns owner) says screw it? Does somebody have a plan for that? Weve got to come up with a solution.
Steeles sign-in sheet on a Friday in early June is nearly filled. She is the intake coordinator at the Place of Miracles Caf, which sits adjacent to Americas Best and serves free meals donated by nearby businesses.
Next to more than half of the names on the sign-in sheet are abbreviations for the motels in which the clients are staying. The rest live in tents or mobile home parks.
The cafe is part of a patchwork of nonprofits and unofficial community organizations that attempt to fill gaps in services for the long-term motel residents. These groups of mainly volunteers feed families, help with rent or pressure motel owners about room conditions. They also acknowledged their efforts are Band-Aids on a larger problem.
Chris Lane said if he and his community organization called the Guardians had more support from the county, more progress could be made on addressing poverty. For Steele, the motel owners are a necessary evil since she has only seen plans and committees come from the county.
Do you want them in a moldy motel room or do you want them in a tent in the woods? she said.
Its awful, but where are you going to put them? Steele said.
Trimaine Reed woke up for her second court date on July 20 unsure of where she would be sleeping that night.
She would never get to show the judge the photos of her room. It took about 10 minutes for the judge to decide that Reed had to move out of her home of three years. She forgot to file paperwork laying out her defense to the claim that she owed $4,015.81 to Americas Best Value Inn, so the judge ruled in the motels favor.
Reed didnt understand what happened as she stood before the judge. Outside the courtroom, when she was told the eviction was official, she started to cry.
The motels attorney offered to forgo the money it argued was owed if Reed would agree to cover the attorneys fees and move out within a day or so. Reed eventually agreed, but that meant she needed to figure out where to go at that moment.
An attempt to join a rehab center didnt work out. Moving to another motel, as Americas Best Value Inns lawyer suggested she could, wasnt an option.
The majority of hotels on Willis Road is the same as Americas Best Value, Reed said. Its not that easy.
Within days, she packed up her Bible and the Twilight board game her sister gave her several years ago for her birthday.
Above: Kelsey Ratliff stands with her daughter Liliana, 2, in the doorway of their room at Americas Best Value Inn while Chesterfield County police officers explain that she must vacate the property. Ratliff had lived at the motel since Christmas 2016, but because she has switched rooms, the Landlord-Tenant Act does not apply to her and she is not eligible for the official eviction process.
A Place of Miracles Caf operates out of the building adjoining Americas Best Value Inn on Willis Road. We serve hot homemade meals Tuesday through Friday to the needy who live in the run-down motels and trailer parks around the Jefferson Davis corridor, its website reads. Clients sign in for dinner with their name and the abbreviation for the motel they live in.
The Snow White Motel is just one of many properties along Jeff Davis filling the housing gap for people unable to afford apartments and homes.
Angie Smith, 38, and her daughter Angelina cut through the woods on their way to buy school clothes at a thrift store in March. They live in a rental cabin along Jeff Davis Highway. That stretch of the road doesnt have sidewalks, so they go through the woods to avoid traffic. They used to live at Americas Best Value Inn on Willis Road.
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Affordable housing shortage leaves hundreds calling hotels along Jeff Davis home - Richmond.com