Hotel promised to rehabilitate residents. Instead, they faced bedbugs, drugs, vermin.

Hotel promised to rehabilitate residents. Instead, they faced bedbugs, drugs, vermin.
Piles of trash sit at the end of a hallway on the third floor of the Airport Parkway Inn and Suites. (Alex Kormann | The Charlotte Observer)
Piles of trash sit at the end of a hallway on the third floor of the Airport Parkway Inn and Suites. (Alex Kormann | The Charlotte Observer)
City inspectors found rooms with no heat or air conditioning, piles of garbage, bedbugs and broken windows among other problems at the Airport Parkway Inn and Suites. (Alex Kormann | The Charlotte Observer)
City inspectors found rooms with no heat or air conditioning, piles of garbage, bedbugs and broken windows among other problems at the Airport Parkway Inn and Suites. (Alex Kormann | The Charlotte Observer)
The Airport Parkway Inn and Suites (Alex Kormann | The Charlotte Observer)
The Airport Parkway Inn and Suites (Alex Kormann | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Fred Clasen-Kelly, Jamie Gwaltney and Caroline Metzler | The Charlotte Observer) - For more than two years, city inspectors have documented unsafe and squalid conditions at a weekly hotel near uptown that houses low-income families with children, the disabled and others with nowhere else to go.

Inspectors found rooms with no heat or air conditioning, piles of garbage, bedbugs and broken windows among other problems at the Airport Parkway Inn and Suites. Former tenants and a neighboring business complain the building on Wilkinson Boulevard is a magnet for drugs and crime.

Now, Charlotte officials are taking steps that could lead to the demolition of the hotel, a rare move the city has not taken in at least seven years against a lodging establishment.

The building is part of a virtually unnoticed housing sector in Charlotte, where hundreds of people suffering from addiction and mental illness or simply with few other options depend on weekly hotel rooms for permanent shelter.

While tenants avoid sleeping on the streets, they often stay in decrepit and vermin-infested buildings across the city because they can't scrape together enough cash for a deposit, utilities and other expenses to move into an apartment.

Advocates for the poor say the businesses can thrive financially because Charlotte doesn't have enough affordable housing, homeless shelters are almost always full and some hotel owners are not held accountable for substandard conditions.

The Airport Parkway has been cited for more than 20 violations since the beginning of 2015, but authorities did not appear to escalate action against the hotel until a county commissioner complained in July. The latest violation came Wednesday, when city officials cited the hotel for trash and debris on the property.

Interviews with former and current tenants at the Airport Parkway Inn and Suites found that they paid as much as $1,000 a month – in some cases nearly all their monthly income – for a building where inspectors have found faulty plumbing, inoperable smoke detectors and blocked exits.

The hotel operator has promoted the Airport Parkway online as therapeutic housing for the homeless and people recovering from drug addiction. She once promised a "safe, drug free, and stable living environment."

But in December, a 65-year-old man wasn't discovered for three days after he died in his room near a suspected crack pipe, according to a state medical examiner's report. He died from cocaine toxicity and the use of oxycodone and diazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, the report says.

One former tenant said she relapsed while living in the hotel earlier this year because drug dealers operated inside the hotel, sometimes going door-to-door.

"These people were desperate and they were exploited," said Trasha Black, clinical director for Genesis Project 1, a nonprofit that is working to move former hotel tenants into apartments. "It was horrific. I have no idea why this place was allowed to operate."

Commissioner Pat Cotham said she complained after visiting the hotel earlier this year and meeting with a tenant who said she suffered from bedbug bites. Cotham said she can't understand how inspectors could have seen the hotel conditions and not moved to impose stiff sanctions sooner.

"That part is dumbfounding to me," Cotham said. "It is a failure. A lot of people knew about this but didn't speak up. Why did you wait?"

Weak sanctions

In the coming days, code enforcement inspectors will look throughout the three-story building for possible sanitary and safety violations under the city's minimum housing standards ordinance. Officials will decide whether to order repairs, take the property owner to court or recommend that City Council order the structure demolished.

Code Enforcement Division Manager Ben Krise said city rules prevented his office from taking aggressive steps before now.

For example, Krise said, inspectors received complaints only about individual rooms. The conditions in the common areas and the exterior of the building did not warrant additional actions, he said.

Cotham's complaint encompassed the entire property, which Krise said allowed the city to go through every room.

In the past, when inspectors cited violations in individual rooms, Krise said, the Airport Parkway has fixed the problems.

But on recent visits by reporters, roaches crawled on the front-desk counter and lobby floor. Insects hovered around trash piled at end of the second floor. A bathtub in a vacant room held a dead bird.

City records show four code enforcement complaints against the property from 2016 and 2017 remain unresolved, including one for "dilapidated condition of premises."

Asked why the city has not shuttered the hotel for repeated violations, Krise said, "I can't shut down anything. City code doesn't allow it."

Under current rules, he said, code enforcement inspectors have the authority to fine repeat offenders $50 for health and sanitation violations. The office also can hire private contractors for services such as garbage removal or grass cutting and seek repayment from the property owner. In at least two cases in 2016, records say the city hired contractors to cut grass or clean up the building.

The documents do not say how much the city paid or whether the hotel reimbursed the city for the costs.

Krise said officials are considering a proposal that would stiffen fines for repeat and chronic offenders. Inspectors would be able to impose fines of $150, $250 and $500, he said.

Delores Jordan, who operates the Airport Parkway, said her business operates "like any other motel" where customers can rent rooms.

She said she and her staff are doing their best with a difficult population.

Jordan acknowledged the building has bedbugs and roaches, but said that she has hired an exterminator and provides bug killer to tenants. Some tenants, she said, bring bedbugs or other insects to the hotel when they move from homeless shelters or the streets.

Jordan leases the building from the owner and she said that he was responsible for some problems, such as faulty plumbing. The building owner, Sammy Cheema, disputed that account. Cheema said he and Jordan had reached an agreement to pay for repairs and renovations.

Mecklenburg County's Health Department regulates hotels and motels and has the power to close establishments that pose a risk to public health.

But the Health Department does not consider Airport Parkway a lodging facility.

The county did not make officials available for interviews to explain their position.

In a written statement, the county did not say how the Health Department categorizes the property. It said it does not have authority to inspect the building and has referred complaints to the city.

Cotham said the Health Department defines the property as transitional housing, where customers pay to sleep in rooms for weeks or even years longer than a traditional hotel stay.

The Health Department regulates swimming pools and an inspector looked into a complaint about the one at Airport Parkway. A worker secured an unlatched gate with two zip ties to prevent anyone going into the pool, which had no operating permit and contained only about 12 inches of water.

County authorities said they later cited the property owner for failing keep a gate entrance to the swimming pools secured when the zip ties were found missing during a follow-up visit.

'Roaches out of this world'

Social workers from Genesis Project 1 began counseling tenants earlier this year and helped relocate more than a dozen families and individuals. Black, clinical director for the agency, said her agency complained to hotel management but was unsatisfied with the response.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have filed 50 reports of crimes at the Airport Parkway since the beginning of 2015, a number police said was more than typical, but not among the highest totals in the city. Reports included drug offenses and assaults.

"People can't stay clean in that environment," Black said. "There is too much crime and too many drugs."

Faith Jones, 59, lived in the hotel from February to July. Jones said was she was homeless and recovering from a hip replacement when her daughter rented her a room.

She said she was attending substance abuse treatment and each morning had to walk past a room where a tenant sold drugs. Sometimes, she said, dozens of roaches would cover the walls and floors.

"Roaches out of this world," Jones said. "There would be 60 or 70. I would get overcome with disgust. I would sit on the edge of my bed and cry."

She shared a room with her daughter, Toni Moore, 42, who also attends drug treatment. Moore said she relapsed and bought narcotics in the hotel.

Both have moved to another hotel with the assistance of Genesis Project 1 and plan to eventually relocate to an apartment.

Helping or hurting?

Jordan, the Airport Parkway operator, said that without the building, the people who live in 20 rooms would have nowhere to go. The building has 40 other rooms, but Jordan said plumbing problems prevent her from renting those rooms.

Average rent in Charlotte for an apartment is about $1,100 a month, more than some who stay in the Airport Parkway make in monthly income.

The federal government says renters typically should put no more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Higher costs can leave people without enough money for food, medicine, transportation and other basic needs.

"It sounds like everybody needs a scapegoat," Jordan said. "I don't know why you are questioning me. You can't have five-star conditions when you don't pay five-star prices."

A city report says Charlotte needs about 34,000 affordable housing units to meet the need, more than double a decade ago. At the same time, rent prices are rising faster than wages, according to federal estimates.

Advocates for the poor say that means more people must rely on homeless shelters and weekly hotels.

A Child's Place, a nonprofit that serves homeless school children and their caretakers, says nearly a third of its 800 families stay in hotels, where rooms costs $200 a week and up.

"The costs are often high and this expense takes away from a family trying to save enough money for a security deposit on a more stable housing situation," said Art Gallagher, former interim executive director.

In July, a woman stood in her second-floor room at the Airport Parkway and held out her arms to show visitors what she believed were bedbug bites.

The woman, who asked that her name not be published because she feared retribution from the hotel management, said she had moved to the hotel because the room cost $800 a month. Another hotel where she said she previously stayed cost $1,400 a month – almost as much as she receives in monthly Social Security disability benefits.

On a day when temperatures reached into the 90s, the room's air conditioning unit did not appear to be working.

The woman looked around the room and choked back tears. "If I would have known my life would turn out like this, I would have killed myself," she said.