Opinion: No good time to move people from their place of occupancy, but safety was at heart of Budgetel Inn shuttering

Photo By Coty Wamp / Pet feces on the floor of one of the rooms in the Budgetel Inn seen during a walk-through on Wednesday night by Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp.

What is the right time of year to remove children from rooms where feces litter the floor? Which is the right season to remove adults from places where a dead dog lies? When is it best to remove families from rooms filled with what looks like the detritus from an episode of the A&E series "Hoarders"?

Nobody likes to think of 700 people immediately made homeless by the temporary closing of an East Ridge motel. But how long do a city mayor, a police department or a district attorney wait to take action on a property with a persistent volume of crime?

Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp walked through about 30 of the 200-plus rooms in the Budgetel Inn Wednesday night and was shocked by what she saw.

"There are things I won't ever unsee or unsmell," she told this page Thursday. "And I'll never forget the emotion I had when I saw toys lying next to feces. And children's blankets next to drug paraphernalia."

Wamp was roasted on social media for being vicious and cruel for ousting the people a week before Thanksgiving, but her motion to do so -- prompted by calls from East Ridge officials, whose police had answered 1,400 calls there in the last three years -- detailed the amount of crime at the site and the presence of four known sex offenders, including three convicted of violence against children. Eight of the calls were for drug overdoses, two of which resulted in deaths.

The motion also included testimony from nine nearby business owners, who had witnessed panhandling and loitering in parking lots, damaged property, and smelled the odor of marijuana and heard loud music coming from rooms.

Much was made of residents being given four hours to move out of their rooms (though residents were allowed much longer, Wamp said), but word actually filtered out several days ago since Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson was given the order of removal Monday.

Wamp said residents couldn't officially be notified until the judge signed the order.

Schools were made aware of the possibility earlier in the week, and assistance agencies were on-site when members of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and East Ridge Police Department arrived to give residents the news.

Of no small note is the fact the Budgetel Inn is the same property -- then the Superior Creek Lodge -- that was condemned by the city of East Ridge in 2015 after an inspection found part of it was in imminent danger of collapse.

An Atlanta-based developer bought the property for $1.4 million, spent $2 million in renovating it and opened it to guests again in 2018. Most of the residents rented rooms by the week or month, paying $1,000 to $1,400 per month.

The action comes at a time when the city of Chattanooga is considering turning the Airport Inn on Lee Highway it purchased a year ago into supportive housing for formerly homeless people; when a developer wants to turn two nearby Lee Highway hotels and one in Lookout Valley into low-cost apartments; and when the Chattanooga City Council votes to deny the rezoning of a Brainerd Road motel into apartments.

Four short years ago, officials said Budgetel Inn would never get to the place it did when Wamp and others walked through Wednesday night.

The superintendent overseeing construction told the Times Free Press at the time there would be a security guard on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week; that cars would be required to have parking passes; and that no visitors would be allowed after 9 p.m.

Further, a city of East Ridge ordinance passed in 2018 said guests at extended-stay hotels like Budgetel could stay no longer than 120 consecutive days, or 210 total days in a year, and that guests could not move their own furniture into the building.

The city's director of community services at the time said the ordinance was to prevent a place intended for transient occupancy from turning into an apartment complex.

"Our primary focus right now is not to house the residents of East Ridge," the construction overseer said.

"From the city's standpoint, they just don't want it to get where it was," the community services director said. "People had lived there ... and there was a constant police presence. We are looking for a safe and sanitary environment."

Something happened in those four years. Residents to whom the newspaper spoke all said they were living at the hotel. One man said he and his family had lived there for a year and a half.

Did hotel owners/managers begin to look the other way when people wanted to stay longer than 120 days? Did East Ridge officials not check to see if their ordinance was being violated, especially after so many law enforcement calls? Did the 24-hour hotel security not help, or was it gradually dropped?

People should be upset when 700 hotel residents have to abruptly leave their place of occupancy, but it was never supposed to be their home. The property owner and East Ridge officials should have monitored the hotel closely; it should never have been allowed to deteriorate.

Social media trolls can blame Wamp, but she was only trying to keep people safe. There is plenty of responsibility that should be accepted elsewhere.