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 have been making noise for a couple of weeks, but I had no idea the conditions 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.
An estimated 177 people live 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. The resident 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. I came across a pair of home health nurses leaving in disgust. They had been there to make an initial visit with a client, but police advised them it was not a good time, as inspectors where on that person’s floor just then. The nurses said they would not be coming back. One of them described it as the worst place she’d ever visited.
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.
City officials swept through the seven-story complex on Meadowview Road, about 100 yards from the glimmering glass front of the city’s transportation operations center. Police provided security for inspectors, who had reached the fifth floor by later Wednesday. After a press conference at the transportation center, where District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower spoke forcefully about the city’s intention to improve conditions there, 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.
One is left wondering why the proper attention or enforcement was lacking in the first place, a question few city officials seemed prepared to answer.