A local judge ruled Monday that a shuttered hotel on Brainerd Road can reopen its doors as soon as possible, meaning displaced tenants will return home for the first time in a week.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz said Economy Inn had become a public nuisance, which is why prosecutors moved to close it last week, citing a disproportionately high number of calls for service. But after hearing five hours of testimony from police officers, hotel employees and a tenant, Greenholtz reversed the shutdown — with a few conditions.
The Economy Inn's owner, Janice Hixson, must hire a full-time security guard, look into installing lights in the parking lot and allow more inspections of troublesome rooms on her property, Greenholtz ruled.
"Your property is a nuisance, I want that to be crystal clear," Greenholtz said. "The court does believe there have been strides to make it better, but it's still not where it needs to be. ... You claimed ignorance of what's going on on your property. I think we need to have someone [out there] to help remedy what's occurring."
Prosecutors said they would move as soon as possible to remove the padlock from the hotel entrance. Hixson next returns to court June 8 to update the judge on her progress. She has one week to hire a security guard and needs to compensate several tenants for lost rent, her attorneys said.
About 20 or residents showed up to court Monday to hear the latest about the property. When prosecutors successfully got the business closed Wednesday, an estimated 100 residents, including 12 students in Hamilton County public schools, had one hour to pack up their lives and leave.
One man said he'd been living with his mother and re-washing the same pair of pants and T-shirt since Wednesday. Mark Yahcanan, 52, said he'd been paying for a larger-sized apartment so his grandchildren could regularly stay with him. After the eviction, a social worker relocated him to the Chatt Inn on 23rd Street and he sent his grandchildren to a friend's house, he said.
"Those people altered my life with this foolish act," Yahcanan said. "I'm doing everything right: I go to work, I pay my bills."
Kerry Hayes, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's deputy chief of staff, said Berke's office became aware of the impending shutdown on Feb. 12 and worked with other hotels to relocate displaced tenants.
Melydia Clewell, a spokeswoman for Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, said his office contacted the Hamilton County Department of Health and Chattanooga Neighborhood Services that day to ease the transition.
Prosecutors said a number of factors led to the shutdown: syringes and needles in the parking lot, drug dealing on the sidewalks, consistent reports of fighting and public intoxication, bed bugs in some rooms. One of the state's witnesses, Chattanooga officer Ayriel Novak, said she often found stolen cars at Economy Inn.
In their petition to shut down, prosecutors pointed to 800 calls for service between October 2017 and December 2017. A few residents didn't dispute that figure, or the problems at Economy Inn. But that's not representative of everyone who lives there, they said, and Hixson often called the cops on troublemakers, too.
"The court will hear my client has a zero-tolerance policy in place," attorney Adam Holland said. "If they engage in criminal activity or domestic violence or threatens the safety, they will hear from Janice. They will also hear from the onsite manager."
Holland and a second attorney, Phil Fleenor, said statistics from the Chattanooga Police Department showed the number of reported crimes decreasing from 2015 onward. That's when Hixson bought the property through Lookout Mountain Suites LLC. On top of that, they said prosecutors were including any crimes within a 500-foot radius, meaning those figures could include incidents from other businesses or parts of the area.
Because prosecutors didn't give sufficient notice to Hixson, she couldn't voluntarily fix the problem beforehand, her attorneys argued. As a result, Hixson was locked out, too, during the eviction. She couldn't access her records or get to her safe, which held her tenants' cash payments.
This ultimately did not persuade prosecutors, who noted that Hixson had spoken with officers at one point about possible drug use on her property. She should have known something was amiss from that moment forward, they said.
Greenholtz said the state didn't prove Hixson had actual knowledge of these problems, but said she couldn't plead ignorance either.
"The court certainly believes you should have made inquiry into whether illegal activity was going on," Greenholtz said. "Among other things, your omission that an officer asked you about drug activity probably would have signaled a duty to make inquiry on your own premises."
This story was updated Feb. 19, 2018, at 11:40 p.m. with more information.