Ronald Reagan said, “The most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
The families evicted from the apartments on Summit Avenue last week may not be familiar with that quote since most are new to this country, but they can certainly identify with it.
Five children lost their lives in the tragic fire on May 12. And it was a loss not just to the family but to entire tight knit community in that apartment complex made up mainly of refugees.
Many are related. They watched after each other’s children. They worked together. Many spoke a language that not many people in Greensboro do, so the people they could communicate with were limited. It was a real community.
So what does the Greensboro City Council do to help this refugee community that was mourning the loss of five children to a tragic but accidental fire?
The City Council gets over 25 families evicted from their homes.
It is utterly baffling that even one member of the City Council thought that getting people evicted from their homes was going to be helpful. But perhaps it is even sadder that not a single member of the City Council took it upon themselves to solve the current housing issues without the families being evicted.
The City Council, without any objection or hesitation, allocated $45,000 to help the families move. Why didn’t they allocate $45,000 to help the families stay?
The problem was that the apartments didn’t pass inspection and the landlord, Arco Realty, didn’t bring the apartments up to code in the allotted time. So the apartments were condemned and the families who had done nothing wrong were evicted.
The often implied but never stated goal of the City Council was to punish Arco, but Arco will bring the apartments up to code and, because the housing available in that price range is extremely limited, should have no trouble renting them as soon as they pass inspection.
The backstory is that members of the City Council, without any proof, relying only on hearsay and rumor, determined shortly after the fire that the fire was the fault of the landlord for not fixing defective wiring or a faulty stove.
But it turned out the facts did not support that assumption. The problem was that facts are slow and rumors are quick. Decisions had been made based on rumors instead of waiting for the facts.
The fact is that the fire was accidental and it was caused by food being left cooking on the stove unattended.
The father of the five children who died, ate that night at his parents house, apparently unaware that there was food cooking on his stove at home. When he arrived home after his meal, he put his children to bed and went to bed himself, with the food still cooking on the stove. During the night the food caught fire.
The photos in the official fire report show the pot the food was in completely melted on the stove.
The fire wasn’t the fault of the landlord but was an accident with tragic consequences. However, by the time the fire report was released, the City Council had already made up its mind that the fire was caused by a neglectful landlord and, to make the landlord pay, the city sent inspectors to the apartment complex with interpreters so the tenants’ complaints about their apartments could be understood and the tenants agreed to have their apartments inspected.
You have to wonder how many of those tenants would have agreed to have their apartments inspected if they had known that the result would be that they would be evicted.
Greensboro is a caring city and volunteers have been working overtime to help the families find places to live – an extremely difficult task in a very tight housing market.
One volunteer who was taking several families around town looking for suitable apartments said that some of the places they looked at were worse than the apartments they were leaving.
Looking for a new apartment meant that people had to take time off from work. It also meant leaving their community and, for many, the only people in Greensboro they knew.
If the City Council had really wanted to help, why didn’t it make some arrangements for the apartments to be repaired enough so they wouldn’t be condemned? Or extend the time period for the landlord to repair the apartments so that nobody had to be evicted? It was extended once for a hurricane that never came, certainly it could have been extended again.
Helping people is not always easy, and the first solution is not always the best. I wonder if the tenants were warned that asking the inspectors into their apartments would result in their eviction. If they weren’t that is a travesty.