HAC in the News

Tenants left without housing alternatives

Posted on Sun, Oct 02, 2011

WEST YARMOUTH — Somehow Alexander Pessarodo, his wife and two little boys have made living in a motel room work for their little family.

But now that they are being evicted from their room at West Yarmouth Lodgings on Route 28, Pessarodo, who works construction and as a night cook, admits he is scared.

He and his wife, a dishwasher, can't afford to pay the apartment market rate.

Rental agents told him less-expensive off-season housing may be available in November, but his family would have to move out in May when tourists and seasonal workers return to the Cape and bump up rental prices.

"Right now, it's kind of hard," Pessarodo said. The clock is ticking on his housing search.

Pessarodo and other long-term residents of the motel received 30-day eviction notices Sept. 14, days before a Barnstable Superior Court judge found motel owner Harry Miller in contempt for continuing to use his motels as apartments.

In January the town of Yarmouth won a court case against Miller that upheld a town bylaw limiting motel stays to 30 consecutive days or 90 days during a three-month period.

Town officials gave Miller until May 3 to remove tenants from West Yarmouth Lodgings and the Cavalier Motel, also on Route 28.

When that date came and went, they took Miller to court. On Sept. 21, Judge Christopher Muse put the motels into receivership and placed an attachment on both motels, as well as the Seagull Beach Motel, also owned by Miller.

The losers appear to be the tenants, many of whom appear to have few other housing options.

"It was really a shock for me," Pessarodo said. His oldest son just started kindergarten in Yarmouth.

'You can't afford to live here'

To understand the motel crisis, people need to understand that high rental housing costs are putting regular apartments out of the reach of many low-income families, housing advocates say.

A two-bedroom apartment on the Cape will cost a tenant more than $1,000, not counting utilities, said Allison Rice, vice president of the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corp.

The same type of housing in New Bedford or Fall River costs about $650 a month, which is why HAC often counsels people to cross the bridges in search of rental units, Rice said.

"Nine times out of 10 the answer is, 'You can't afford to live here,'" Rice said.

As far as subsidized housing is concerned, there is a waiting list of more than five years for programs such as Section 8 rental vouchers, she said.

"If you're getting on a housing list now, don't hold your breath," Rice said.

She said the number of Section 8 vouchers — of which her organization administers 700 — has remained stagnant since the Clinton years, even as folks at the bottom of the income ladder increasingly get squeezed out of housing options.

People end up living in motels because they can scrape together the $250 per week it typically costs to live there, which usually includes utilities, cable and water, Rice said.

"They can come up with that each week," she said. "That's something that can be managed."

First and last month's rent and security deposits also work to price low-income people out of rental housing.

Money running low

Michael Macura, who lives at West Yarmouth Lodgings with his wife, needs $2,400 to cover the cost of first and last month's rent and security for a studio apartment in Hyannis.

The cost of the studio over a garage is $800 a month, which is only $50 more than what he pays at West Yarmouth Lodgings.

But Macura, who lives on Social Security disability payments, doesn't have the savings it would require to secure the apartment.

Help is available, in theory.

HAC, a nonprofit based in Hyannis, has a homelessness prevention fund to help people deal with these costs.

But it's running dangerously low, Rice said.

Two years ago, the state stopped providing matching funds. Now the program depends mainly on local churches to raise $3,000 to $4,000, which is generous of them but not nearly enough to handle the need, Rice said.

Without access to these funds, Macura would prefer to stay put in his tidy motel room with his white-painted bureau, coffee table, medications and oxygen equipment.

"I'm scared," he said. "I don't want to leave."

Robert Wilds, president of Miller's company, Admiralty Lodgings, criticized the town of Yarmouth for participating in what he called a "witch hunt" against Miller.

"I don't think the town has been very accommodating at all," he said. "They have no place to put (the tenants) and they know it."

Approximately 100 tenants live in West Yarmouth Lodgings, the Cavalier Motel and the Seagull Beach Motel, Wilds said. Some of the tenants are seasonal employees who are returning soon to their home countries.

Seven to eight other motels in Yarmouth are being used as apartments and they are not facing the town's wrath, Wilds said.

Not enough options

Driving down Route 28 in West Yarmouth, it's easy to see what he means.

Many of the people taking in the sunshine in the parking lots and balconies of neighboring motels do not appear to be tourists.

They call each other by name and prop open their doors with chairs. People propel themselves in wheelchairs; mothers push babies in strollers.

Clients in these other motels stay for 29 days and then either re-register under a different name or leave to stay with a friend for a night or two before returning, Wilds said.

Miller's problem was that he admitted outright that he provided housing for low-income people and planned to continue doing so, Wilds said.

"They have no other options. That's the sad part," said Debbie Bellows, manager of West Yarmouth Lodgings.

But compared with other motels in the area, Miller's employees run a tight ship, she said.

Bellows runs criminal record checks on new tenants to make sure they do not have outstanding warrants, and she patrols the grounds with a fistful of keys like the chatelaine of a castle keep.

The only one she actually uses is a small skeleton key that allows her to check rooms for contraband hot plates.

While she's more than happy to evict a rowdy visitor, Bellows understands perhaps better than anyone what draws people to motel life.

She lives on the premises in an apartment with her boyfriend.

"The jobs are not paying enough," Bellows said. Motel tenants often bounce in and out of rental housing, falling back on single rooms when they can no longer pay the utility bills or afford both groceries and rent.

"Some of these people have been evicted (from rental housing) five times," Bellows said. "It's really starting to irritate me that people don't understand."

Many motel tenants have the kind of low-paying and insecure jobs that are the first to be laid off in a recession and the last hired when employers are looking for new help.

Redevelopment plans in limbo

Jeremy Chipman, 22, who lives at West Yarmouth Lodgings with his fiancee and his grandfather, said he has applied for more than 40 jobs in the past year.

Motel tenants also include people on Social Security disability payments and families who are a few dollars ahead of qualifying for homeless shelters such as the Village at Cataumet, Rice said.

The rooming houses of Hyannis that used to accommodate people living on the fringes of society are mainly a thing of the past, she said.

The sad circumstances of motel tenancy so disturbed Brian Braginton-Smith, chairman of the Yarmouth Board of Health, that he proposed purchasing three of Miller's motels and converting some of them into affordable housing.

He said he has signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with the intention of converting 35 motel units at West Yarmouth Lodgings into 28 units of affordable rental housing.

Another part of his plan was to enfold the Cavalier into a proposed South Yarmouth village center on Route 28 and create both workforce and market-rate housing there.

But Muse's decision to place the motels into receivership has jeopardized his plans, Braginton-Smith said.

A 2006 Yarmouth town bylaw allows motels to be redeveloped as housing units, but the motels need to continue to generate income in the meantime to make his project possible, Braginton-Smith said.

The plan is now "in limbo" and possibly "untenable," he said.

Size limitations

A Barnstable attorney has been given the authority to run Admiralty Lodgings and to use the rent money paid after May 3 to create a fund to assist current occupants, Yarmouth Assistant Town Administrator Peter Johnson-Staub said.

Miller could have sought the help of a town-established fund to convert the motels into licensed rental units, but he never did, Johnson-Staub said.

"How are we ever going to change things if we don't start somewhere? We're trying to convert this (Miller's) property," but the town is not the owner, Johnson-Staub said.

With room sizes of 200 to 300 square feet, West Yarmouth Lodgings would need an upgrade to meet the town bylaw that requires living space to consist of at least 400 square feet, Bellows said.

But the rooms are livable, she insisted.

Several years ago, Miller renovated the motel units, installing kitchen cabinets, sinks, microwaves and three-quarter size refrigerators in each room.

"He fixed them really nice. It's like a little studio-type thing," Bellows said.

One room was converted into a common kitchen with stovetops and large microwaves, while a unit a few doors down serves as the laundry room.

"I really feel like we did a service so (people) can have a roof over their head," Bellows said.

'What happens after that?'

More legal proceedings may be on the horizon, Johnson-Staub said.

Tenants could choose to ignore the eviction notices Miller issued last month, Johnson-Staub said. "What happens after that?"

On Oct. 26, Muse is scheduled to hear whether Miller has approved of working out a restitution plan for tenants who have been making payments since May 3, the date they were all supposed to be out.

Yarmouth town attorney Bruce Gilmore is enraged that Miller never showed up in court on the contempt charges, sending in officers of his company instead.

He has called for Miller's arrest.

Bellows is prepared for a fight.

"I'll sit here," she said. "I'll be the last one out. I'll probably be on TV in handcuffs. I care about the bylaws, but I don't want to put these people out on the road."