No room at the inn

On a wet icy morning, a lone string of Christmas lights brightened the old brick boarding house on Merrimon Avenue. The message on my voice mail that morning had said, “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we do have the Christmas spirit.”

It was the voice of Todd Hollar, one of the many residents still trying to sort out what comes next, now that the 100-year-old boarding house has been condemned (its list of fire-safety and building-safety code violations fills two pages).

It was two weeks after Asheville City Council voted to have the home closed, and about half of its 30-some tenants remained. A resident named Charlie answered the front-desk phone when Mountain Xpress called. “Mary and I, we’ll be moving to the Vanderbilt Apartments in a few days,” he reported. Todd had gone to Tennessee with “Cherokee” Joe. Paula Simonton and a bunch of other residents had moved to an Asheville Family Care Homes facility out in Leicester, Charlie continued. “Twin” Latonda Whitmire was still at the home, and Charlie put her on the phone, after saying he was glad to have found a place in town where he and Mary could stay together.

Twin didn’t have a new home yet, but — with help from the Affordable Housing Coalition and other organizations — she has signed up for food stamps and applied for a Housing Authority residence. “Lots of paperwork,” she said about the process.

The next day, Mountain Xpress visited the six tenants who had moved out to Leicester. On the winding drive to Country Time Village, a 50-acre campus with 13 homes, coordinator Richard Setliff explained, “We help people who don’t have anything.” The typical AFCH resident is on Medicaid and has little or no income other than Social Security benefits. “That pays their bills — room and board and transportation — [and] we give them a spending account out of that.”

As of Dec. 12, AFCH had taken six of the boarding house’s residents and planned to bring several others out to Country Time by the end of the week, Setliff noted. One boarding-house tenant was placed in an AFCH home near the hospitals in Asheville. And the Affordable Housing Coalition has worked with other tenants to fast-track their applications to the Housing Authority.

“There’s places for [the boarding-house] residents to go, but they have to do their part,” said Setliff. He also alluded to some residents’ checkered pasts, disabilities and continuing substance abuse: “We’re not so concerned about their past as some [housing providers] might be. We’re more concerned about their present and their future. But if someone comes out here and gets crazy drunk, we’re probably going to ask them to leave. We’re trying to help them break that circle.”

Setliff also emphasized that Simonton and the others are getting a much nicer, safer home than the falling-down house on Merrimon. The 13 modest, well-maintained structures at Country Time line the ridgetops of the property, providing mountain views and plenty of peace and quiet. It’s a homey rural retreat.

“I was raised out in the country, so I like it fine,” said 67-year-old J.C. Walker. He and Steven Fisher were watching a video when Mountain Xpress arrived — The Bone Collector. Setliff teased J.C. that he’d probably rather be fishin’ than watching Denzel Washington. J.C. laughed and agreed.

He’ll probably get a chance to go fishing eventually; AFCH sponsors monthly outings like that, Setliff mentioned. But J.C. might have to wait till spring.

Simonton was there, too, playing house mom as she had at 135 Merrimon. A certified nursing assistant, Simonton has been hired by AFCH as a supervisor, though she’ll need some more training to get up to speed. Asked how she likes Country Time so far, Simonton replied: “Time will tell. I think it will pan out for me. But I’ll be happier when all my chickens are taken care of,” referring to those residents who have yet to find homes.

Young Denis McDonald will be moving into an apartment owned by the lawyer he works for part time, Simonton mentioned. The others are getting help through what she called “an honest effort” by the Housing Coalition, the Department of Social Services and other organizations. Five other boarding-house tenants have jobs, and the coalition is helping them find affordable apartments.

On Tuesday, Dec. 12, City Council also voted to provide up to $1,200 per resident in emergency-relocation assistance.

Simonton nodded in appreciation, then paused to answer the phone. “Merrimon House!” she said, then laughed at her slip.

“This is the glitch in Asheville housing right now. It’s not the elderly or the DSS or the Mental Health clients caught in a crunch, so much as it’s the working folks getting $6 an hour and trying to get on their feet,” Simonton reflected as she bustled about, fixing lunch for J.C. and Fisher (the other guys had just left in an AFCH van for a trip to town).

Sipping his Campbell’s soup, J.C. remarked, “It’s better being with people I know than strangers.” He surveyed the country scene outside and said that if he had a little shotgun, he’d be out there hunting squirrels or something.

Fisher, meanwhile, was his usual taciturn self, though he did toss in a bit of dry humor: “It’s a little too quiet out here!” he said, just as someone in the video screamed.

But there was no mistaking the threesome’s genuine gratitude. Simonton emphasized that AFCH had cut them a little leeway on the first month’s expenses — all are extra broke at the moment, because former boarding-house owner Bob Janney had collected rent from tenants for November and December, despite having ceased to own the property on Nov. 8. And J.C. piped up: “He got all my money, too! Now I’m broke.”

AFCH Administrator Stan Bradley arrived, contributing to the lunchtime discussion: “On a moment’s notice, we could take 12 more, and at least give them a place to stay till they find something else. Some of the residents feel like they’re losing their independence; I can understand that. But it’s not a prison out here.” Residents are free to come and go; AFCH provides transportation to town several times a day for doctor’s visits, shopping and the like; and meals are served in each house. AFCH — a for-profit organization — also has properties in Asheville and the surrounding area, but those smaller facilities fill up faster, Bradley mentioned. Boarding-house tenants who want to stay in Asheville might have to come out to Country Time initially, until a space opens up at one of AFCH’s other facilities. “It’s about giving [the tenants] a choice,” said Bradley.

There’s one choice that Simonton especially appreciated: She could bring her cats with her to Country Time. She showed me her new room; most of her stuff was still in boxes, and the two cats sprawled on the bed. Jaws-and-claws reared his big gray head for a leisurely petting, then curled back up for a nap.

“I made a personal choice to come out here,” said Simonton. She’s got knee surgery coming up soon, she said; and besides, tenants like J.C. and Fisher need her. “Our guys will be healthier out here,” said Simonton.

Meanwhile, the lights at Merrimon House won’t be lit much longer. Once the tenants have all moved out, the current owner, TM Equity (which took possession Nov. 8 after foreclosing on the property), plans to board the place up and will either bulldoze it or sell it as is, according to the company’s attorney, Marjorie Mann.

Contact the Affordable Housing Coalition (259-9216) for information on how you can assist the displaced boarding-house tenants.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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