Displaced residents, nonprofits scrambling to find housing in wake of sudden closure
Residents were notified by the motel management that they had 24 hours to vacate the premises Tuesday. One day later, dozens of families remained on the property, anxiously awaiting information on the availability of temporary housing.
“At least as far as I know, about five or six families that have more than four people on them, [they] don’t know where they’re going,” said 25-year-old Raul Lugo, who has lived at the Budgetel Inn for the last two years. “Because we were told in the office they don’t have the resources or any place to put us at the moment.”
Like many residents, Lugo said the sudden eviction notice came as a shock.
“I think they could have waited until at least until Friday, at least give us the rest of the week to find somewhere to go,” he said. “It’s the middle of the week, nobody around here gets paid until Friday or every other Friday, so it just kind of put everybody in a bad place.”
As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, DPH official Victor Abercrombie said about two dozen childless couples remained on the premises, as well as “a few of the larger families.”
“The families are a priority,” he said. “Trying to find just facilities that can house [them], without breaking up the families.”
At the moment, Abercrombie said DPH officials are trying to get the displaced settled into temporary housing for at least one week.
“We’re still going to offer assistance for some of the families that have the children, just to make sure we get them a place that’s more secure,” he said. “This is a partnership with about everybody. We have local faith groups, we do have county agencies, we have the DPH, Bartow County Schools people, the fire department, everybody is working every resource they can right now to make sure we can get these people and these families what they need.”
According to the accommodation permit suspension notice filed by Abercrombie, the motel had numerous repeat violations, including “unapproved cooking equipment, “infestation of roaches/flies” and “finishings not being kept up.”
Sri Bollepalli has owned the motel for the last three years.
“We are actually working to rebuild this, and earlier on … Bartow County was giving me some instructions on how to bring it up to the code,” he said. “We are working on those lists of things, but surprisingly, this happened.”
Bollepalli said he’s already invested $500,000 in making the mandated improvements.
“Most of the corrections were made, a little here and there,” he said. “We’re going to improve it and open it soon.”
As for how quickly Bollepalli said he expects the motel to reopen, he said “as soon as possible.”
Yet he did not take responsibility for the motel’s closure.
“I sympathize for them, but this is not my fault,” he said. “I tried every possible way to keep them here, but there’s something I cannot control. Bartow County, they are not happy with what’s going on here.”
Many residents told The Daily Tribune News they were still awaiting refunds from the motel management.
Andrea Smith, who does not live at the motel, said her mother — who does reside at the Budgetel Inn — made a payment Saturday, yet was told she would not receive a refund “because she was $318 behind,” despite having receipts indicating her balance was in the positive.
The 26-year-old even accused the management of emptying the onsite ATM machine and literally running away with the money.
Bollepalli, however, said that is not the case.
“No, we are refunding everybody,” he said. “We have all the receipts.”
Management did provide The Daily Tribune News with evidence of about 16 refunds, dating back to Oct. 15.
Smith said her mother, who has several emotional support animals, has no place to go in the wake of the eviction.
As to what the county government can do to alleviate the situation, she simply said “I have no clue.”
Abercrombie said there are no plans to condemn the property — at least via the State health department — at this time. As for when the motel could reopen, he said it hinges entirely on the management.
“We will be meeting with them later and going over some more specifics, but as far as the timeline, that is strictly up to how fast they can do what they need to do,” he said.
Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force Major Mark Mayton said it’s no secret that the motel is one of the most crime-ridden areas in the county.
Just last year, he said police calls to the motel easily eclipsed 190.
“In 2019 already they’re at 177 calls for service at the Budgetel,” he told The Daily Tribune News. “We do a large range of drug activity there, and it’s just not users; we actually have sell cases there, distribution cases out of there, and it runs the range from methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, illegal prescription drug diversion — so it’s just a wide range of crimes that we’ve done in there.”
In February, Mayton said eight search warrants were executed on the same day at the motel.
“There were some fugitives located there, multiple drug offenders,” he said.
As to why the motel has been such a haven for drugs and other crimes, Mayton said he couldn’t pinpoint a single answer. The Efficiency Lodge off Highway 20, he said, is comparably priced, yet receives only a fraction of the service calls the Budgetel Inn receives.
“The location has a lot to do with it, the clientele that’s coming in and out of there has a lot to do with it,” he said. “So there’s not one thing particular that I could put my thumb on. It’s just a hotspot for it.”
Mayton said the mass displacement cannot be blamed on Bartow County's government.
“The owner, he has been aware of this for over a year,” he said. “He had an opportunity to correct the problems and I can’t speak for the health department, because that’s not my world, but he had an opportunity to rectify those problems and he chose not to do that for whatever reason or didn’t meet those requirements.”
He also said there is “a lot more at risk here” than families being displaced.
“Those children are exposed to all of that,” he said. “There was a guy that was wanted for a bench warrant for child pornography, the drug activity that’s there. I mean, so with the bad goes the good, as well.”
Management did not provide an estimate for the total number of people displaced by the eviction. Representatives from several nonprofits, however, told The Daily Tribune News that the number of children made homeless by the motel closure may be in excess of 50.
“It’s more than just the living conditions for the children, as far as the insects and the bed bugs and the rodents,” Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor told The Daily Tribune News. “The service calls, the 911 calls that has went out to that area is probably more than anywhere else in Bartow County.”
Continuing, Taylor said he believes that no child should live in such environments.
“We’ve had dozens of arrests from drugs and prostitution out there, and the living conditions for those children are horrible,” he said. “That’s the reason for this action to take place now.”
Indeed, Taylor said no matter where the children end up, he said it almost certainly has to be an improvement from their previous residence.
“The intent here was never for anybody to be homeless,” Taylor said. “The government has to enforce certain housing conditions, and this was really a bad situation that these people were in.”