Unpaid water bills and absent owners could render families homeless as the city of Red Bank decides whether to classify two apartment complexes as "unfit for human habitation."
Lacking running water, units at Ridgemont Park and Cambridge Park could be condemned.
"If there's no running water, we have to condemn," Red Bank Public Works Director Wayne Hamill said.
Water service is included in the rent at the complexes, but the owners in Syracuse, N.Y., often must be badgered to pay the bills, Red Bank officials said.
Tennessee American Water spokeswoman Kim Dalton said privacy issues prevented her from talking about specific billing problems with the complexes, but Red Bank City Manager Chris Dorsey said he hears from Tennessee American "fairly often" and is forced to nag the property managers until water bills "get wired from New York."
A manager at Ridgemont Park hung up when contacted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and Cambridge Park Apartments staff never answered the phone or returned messages.
Apartment tenants say they're frustrated with conditions at both complexes.
On a hot September morning, Mary Basler knelt outside her Ridgemont Park apartment, along with about 20 residents who work second and third shift, sometimes both. They listened as Red Bank employees tried to explain how they'll deal with toilet water on the floor and black mold funneling through air vents.
Basler was through listening. One of the employees told the group to "settle down," but Basler didn't want to hear it.
"I had one leg shaved in the shower and then the water went out," she said. "I won't settle down."
Two miles down Dayton Boulevard at Cambridge Park, 21-year-old Christopher McJunkin and his girlfriend, Brittany Scoggins, 20, said they get sick once a month from dry rot smothering the appliances inside their apartment.
"My chest feels like a cinder block's on it," McJunkin said. "There was no filter in our AC unit, so it was blowing black mold out the whole time."
His girlfriend quickly chimed in.
"The water shuts off for two days every few weeks, and I can't take a shower or brush my teeth in the morning," Scoggins said. "I get ready for work at work."
"Then the pool got condemned for algae in the middle of summer," McJunkin said. "It was green as a Mello Yello bottle. That's where my $544-a-month rent money goes.
"No one should live here," he said.
While Red Bank officials feel they must do something, the consequences of mass eviction have them hesitant to take action.
TO GET HELP
If you want Red Bank code officials to inspect your apartment at Cambridge Park or Ridgemont, call 877-1103, ext. 3. You must invite officials, since the apartment owners will not allow government inspections.
"It's getting real sticky," Hamill said. "We're trying to help residents find other places, but there's only so much a government can do."
Hamill said Red Bank can't give money to evicted residents. About 40 percent of the apartments at Ridgemont are unoccupied - leaving room for some evicted patrons - but city officials said mold and sewage have polluted many of those units, too.
Dorsey said neither apartment complex has granted the city the right to inspect, so he is encouraging tenants to invite city workers on their property to see if it needs major attention, even condemnation.
The most extreme option spooks Michelle Green, 38, a Ridgemont tenant who said she opened a cookbook to see roaches crawling out.
Her boyfriend, Travis Hayworth, 41, said he threatened to call the Better Business Bureau before apartment staff brought working burners for their stove weeks after a first request.
"Some of my kids go to Red Bank High School, and they don't want to switch," Green said. "Money's so tight. I don't know what I'll do."