ADAMS -- Just over three months.
Those involved in a successful effort to safely rehouse approximately 27 tenants living in squalor at a town motel didn't expect such a quick turnaround.
But the Dug-Out Motel was officially recognized as vacated in Pittsfield housing court Wednesday, where the counsel of Assistant Attorney General William O'Neill was reported to have said, "Your honor, it was a pit."
Three key role-players gathered at Adams Visitors Center on Thursday to reflect on relocating 12 families, the former tenants, to apartments in North Adams and Adams between November and the end of February.
Lauren Bolio of Berkshire Regional Housing Authority's Tenancy Preservation Project said it was the most serious crisis she's faced in her career.
"Twelve families were facing eminent homelessness," she said. "... They really needed someone to come in and say, ‘No, there's better. We're going.' "
Bolio credited locals for their volunteer work and donations. Town Code Enforcement Officer Scott Koczela said Bolio and Linda Greenbush, outreach coordinator of Adams Council on Aging, had pulled off an "amazing feat." Greenbush thanked Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation for providing key financial support, including first month's rent for each of the 12 families relocated to apartments in North Adams and Adams -- grants she was instrumental in facilitating.
But, in the end, it was regarded as a "community effort," involving concerned residents, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts student volunteers, local church groups and more.
Bolio said her agency will remain in contact with the Dug-Out's former tenants for as long as 18 months to provide additional transitional assistance. Their new housing arrangements were described as "clean, safe and affordable."
In contrast, the former conditions at the Dug-Out were reported as dirty and dangerous.
Rooms were overcrowded -- in the worst instance, a family of eight living in an eight-by-thirteen space. Floorboards were sodden, rugs filthy and mattresses unfit for use. Battered doors popped open at a push, and rooms were without stoves, smoke or carbon monoxide detectors and refrigerators. Hot plates were illegally provided by the management for tenants to cook with, and re-collected if an inspection was imminent, Koczela said.
Managers Avtar and Gurinder Baweja charged tenants as much as possible, said Koczela, an average of $700 per month. Threats of eviction and the forcible removal of tenants belongings from rooms were standard, and the managers even transported one tenant to and from the bank to immediately collect on cash from his Social Security checks. The longest tenants had stayed upwards of three years.
"Basically, they took whatever they could get out of these people," Koczela said. "... Many are handicapped, and it was the last stop before the street for some."
The managers continued accepting new tenants even after Koczela issued a vacate order on the property in November. The court reported Wednesday that the Bawejas had fled to Connecticut.
Douglas Rose, a New York attorney who became the motel's court-appointed receiver in December, has reported the receivership closed. An $11,000 bill accumulated in the interim is to be paid by mortgagee Bayview Loan Servicing out of Boston.
Bolio said they'd wanted to assign responsibility to the managers or the motel's owners, the Sharma family, but could not due to ambiguities in the agreement between these two parties. Tenants are entitled to sue for damages, but Bolio said the prospects aren't good for the same reason.
She said in some instances the process of finding tenants new and separate apartments felt like "breaking up a family."
"I think the only way they got through it was together," Bolio said. One family had a space heater, and other tenants cycled in and out of that room for warmth due to the management's strict controls over heat oil usage.
"We're all so glad it's over," Bolio added.
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