Economy

How Corrupt Officials Screwed Up An Extremely Poor Town’s Big Break

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

James McCaden

As the town council meeting let out, Albert Tardy milled around the front steps of the town hall. He wore a baseball cap and a hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, unfazed by the brisk November air.

“This town is set in its ways,” he said. “In order to get things done, it takes a well-rounded group. It takes a dreamer, a hard-nosed penny pincher, a butthole critic, a doer — it takes a whole lot. But a council of naysayers, that won’t get anything done.”

Albert attends town council meetings every month and has gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of local leadership. When the former mayor, Curtis Davis, passed away in 2014 after holding office for 24 of the last 28 years, Albert was optimistic that a change in leadership would be a turning point for the town. “They appointed one of the council members, Alvin Foster, as mayor pro tem,” he said.

In November, 2015, Foster was elected mayor of Yanceyville, North Carolina; he did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

“I was excited—I liked Foster,” Albert continued. “But then, it was like he went from Hubert Humphrey to Lester Maddox.” Albert shook his head, turned, and spat on the sidewalk. “Can’t work on a dairy farm and not get shit on you I guess.”

Yanceyville courthouse

Yanceyville courthouse

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

In the center of Yanceyville sits the large, ornate courthouse that served as the Caswell County seat of government from the Civil War through the start of the 20th century. At the time of its construction, it was considered a marvel of experimental architecture, combining distinct elements of Neoclassical and Romanesque designs. The courthouse was built at the end of the boom era in Caswell County — a prosperous period for farmers and businessmen in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Industry expanded with the development of mills for lumber, textiles, and grist, but the county’s prosperity was largely owed to corn and tobacco, which were harvested on vast slave plantations. In homage to the crops that brought so much wealth to the area, the courthouse’s arcade pilasters are adorned with copper tobacco leaves and ears of corn.

But while the columns hearken back to the town’s prosperous times, Yanceyville has long been one of the poorest places in the country. More than half of the population lived below the poverty line in 2013 and the median household income was $14,500. Poverty falls harder on African-American residents, 64 percent of whom lived below the poverty line, compared to 29 percent of white residents. At the county level, African Americans suffer from an unemployment rate of 18 percent (although as recently as 2011, it was over 20 percent).

These racial disparities trace their roots back to slavery. In 1861, the same year the courthouse was completed, North Carolina seceded from the Union. While the move was controversial at first, the threat to slavery, which was the lifeblood of the local agricultural economy, brought Caswell County and the state of North Carolina to fully support the Confederate cause. Yanceyville contributed a number of battalions to the war effort, including the Yanceyville Grays and Caswell Rangers. The Bank of Yanceyville — one of the most capitalized banks in North Carolina at the time — provided significant financial support to the Confederate cause.

Following the war, Caswell County went from one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina to one of the poorest. In his history of Caswell County, When the Past Refused to Die, William S. Powell argues that the defeat of the Confederate army “completely changed the course of the history of Caswell County.” He continues, “For many whites it meant the abandonment of the familiar plantation lifestyle; for the previously poor small farmer it meant even greater poverty; and for the whole county it meant a reduced standard of living all around, abandoned land, and a public revenue inadequate for the services that governments ordinarily were expected to provide.”

The poverty that beset Yanceyville was brought on by a crumbling agricultural economy as slaves were freed from local plantations; it was exacerbated by Democrats who challenged social progress and an extensive Ku Klux Klan chapter that exercised mob rule. White residents who lost their power and fortune following the war relied on the Klan to maintain an antebellum status quo. Whippings and beatings were commonplace for residents who supported racial progress. Those who openly challenged the Klan risked death. In 1870, the courthouse was the site of the brutal murder of state senator John W. Stephens, who became a proponent of black enfranchisement after the war. A group of Klansmen slit his throat and watched him bleed out following a political rally. The murder prompted Governor William Holden to suspend habeas corpus in Caswell County and enforce martial law, but none of the Klansmen were ever tried or convicted.

The Caswell County website, nevertheless, describes the courthouse as “a living document of Southern 19th century justice.” The courthouse symbolizes Yanceyville’s commitment to its antebellum roots, and it is guarded by a bronze Confederate soldier on the town green, facing north.

But neither the town’s economy, nor its government, ever fully recovered from the fallout following the Civil War. Governmental dysfunction worsened the poverty in Yanceyville—and a similar kind of dysfunction perpetuates the town’s poverty today.

Harris

Harris

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

“I was born and raised Yanceyville,” Harris said, standing on a stepladder on his front porch. (Some names in this article have been changed to protect people’s privacy.) “Spent most of my life bouncing around to different places, and wasn’t ’til 10 years ago I settled back here.”

He reached up and drove a screw through one of the wood boards above his head. “Ceiling is starting to come apart,” he said without looking down. “It’s an old house—built in 1907, ’08 maybe. Guess it’s to be expected.”

When Harris was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, he was forced to quit his job. While only a few years short of retirement, he wasn’t quite ready to leave the workforce. “I got to find things to keep me occupied—guess it’s a good thing there’s always work to do on this house. Keeps me busy.”

They’re supposed to be the leaders
According to Harris, Yanceyville was always a quiet town, but when he left as a young man, he remembers there were some businesses in the town center and work to be found on the farms. When he returned 40 years later, he expected to find a town that had grown over the years. Instead, he discovered a place with fewer opportunities than when he had left. Businesses were shuttered, houses looked battered, and the people were desperate.

“What this town needs is a facelift,” he said. “Clean up the streets, clear away the brush from the buildings—make the place shine. Who wants to open a business here with the place looking like it does now?”

But the improvements Yanceyville needs are not simply cosmetic. Housing in many neighborhoods is outdated and unreliable. On the west end of Main Street, where Harris lives, frequent flooding as a result of poor drainage systems has left many houses damaged.

“When it rains, the water comes right up to my knees in the front yard,” he said, stepping down from ladder on the porch. “All down the street, run-off just soaks these houses, leaving water stains and rotting foundations.”

An old house in Yanceyville

An old house in Yanceyville

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

At the dawn of the Great Recession, the federal government began pumping money into local municipalities to stimulate economic growth. In 2009, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Yanceyville received a $500,000 community development block grant (CDBG) to fund its Community Revitalization project. The project aimed to rebuild some of the poorest neighborhoods in town.

The $500,000 CDBG made some initial headway toward this goal, and Yanceyville received two additional grants in 2010 and 2011—for $850,000 and $309,000, respectively—to complete the project. The grants were intended to rehabilitate old, unsafe houses in low-income neighborhoods and replace obsolete water and drainage systems. The majority of residents who were supposed to benefit from the grants were African American, including all 17 beneficiaries under the $850,000 grant.

James McCaden, 72, was living at 292 First Avenue when his house was selected for rehabilitation under the larger grant. While he didn’t own the house, he had reached an agreement with the owners — who lived outside of Yanceyville — to let him live there in exchange for paying taxes on the property. The house was in bad shape — the roof was damaged, the walls were poorly insulated, and the siding was falling off. But after living there for 23 years, he considered it home.

James was an ideal beneficiary under the Community Revitalization project. In the grant’s community development plan, the town stated that assistance was targeted at low-income residents as well as “persons with special needs (elderly, disabled, etc.).” James was born and raised in the low-income neighborhood that the project aimed to improve, and Social Security is his only source of income. He relies on an electric scooter to get around and suffers from a number of health conditions, including kidney failure, heart trouble, and high blood pressure — “you name it, I got it,” he said.

To oversee the project, Yanceyville hired Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates (HUA) as a third-party contractor. Michael Walser, a then-HUA employee, served as the grant administrator for both grants awarded in 2010 and 2011. Walser was responsible for soliciting construction bids, managing payments, and filing progress reports. He worked with numerous municipalities across North Carolina on similar grants, and over time Yanceyville gave him increasing control over the project. HUA declined to comment for this story, and Michael Walser did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2010, before construction began under the two grants, Walser visited James at his home on First Avenue. “They showed me what they were going to do to the house—all the improvements,” James recalled. “They said they could move the furniture around inside the house and I wouldn’t need to move anything [out].”

At first, James was relieved that the town would accommodate his disability. With limited mobility, he couldn’t move his belongings himself, and paying for a company to move and store them would have been a financial burden.

The town’s accommodation fell by the wayside, however, when construction began on First Avenue in 2011.

“They ran a fence right up from Wall St. past my house—a long metal fence with black plastic running along it,” James said. Because the fence spanned the entire block in front of his house, he could not get around it on his scooter. “I couldn’t get in and out of there.”

James had no choice but to temporarily relocate, and a neighbor offered to let him stay at her house while 292 First Avenue was rehabilitated. He was told the construction wouldn’t take long, so he packed lightly.

“I [only brought] my clothes—some of my clothes,” James said. “Didn’t take nothing else but my mattress.”

James McCaden

James McCaden

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

For weeks, James lived out of a suitcase and slept on a bare mattress in his neighbor’s house, waiting for construction to begin. Weeks soon turned to months. In the summer of 2012, after a year of no progress, James finally received a package in the mail. It contained a thick packet detailing $74,000 worth of renovations to the house, which included a new heating system, weatherization, and a new deck. It also included the results of a lead paint inspection — a preliminary step before construction can begin on a house.

The package gave him renewed hope, but closer inspection of the paperwork shows alarming indiscretion by town officials and the project manager. The house was labeled “unoccupied” in the lead paint analysis and “vacant” in the work write-up. Even though the house was filled with his belongings, the contractors assumed it was unoccupied, and town officials failed to address the error in its review of the paperwork.

These errors weren’t anomalous oversights by the town. Documents released through public records requests reveal a track record of negligence and disorganization that plagued both grants. By the time James received the rehabilitation packet in mid-2012, the town had already surpassed the original completion date set for the $850,000 grant. Town officials estimated it would be completed 21 months after receiving funding approval from the North Carolina Department of Community Assistance (DCA) in May of 2010. Over the next year and a half, the town submitted several extension requests as the project floundered. By February of 2012, 21 months after the closeout date was set, construction was not even close to completion.

The bungled execution of the $309,000 grant sheds further light onto the town’s mismanagement of the Community Revitalization project and can be seen as a grim augury for where the larger grant was headed. The town similarly requested several extensions to complete the smaller grant, which dragged out construction for an additional eight months. The original completion date was set for December 16, 2011, but the grant was not closed out until July 10, 2012. Despite the extensions, the town was unable to fulfill the obligations it outlined at the outset of the grant. The town failed to demolish two houses and rehabilitate one. The four residents who lived in the latter made up half of the residents who were supposed to benefit from housing rehabilitation. Twelve residents were supposed to receive relocation assistance through the grant, but only two were successfully relocated.

In the closeout letter for the smaller grant — which the town submitted two years late, despite numerous requests from the Department of Commerce — Mayor Curtis Davis brushed aside the town’s inability to meet its obligations. “Some of the proposed activities for this project were unable to be completed due to a lack of funds,” he stated.

It was an excuse the town would grow to rely on as the larger grant went off the rails.

Albert Tardy

Albert Tardy

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

In 1988, after serving 22 years in the army, Albert Tardy moved to Caswell County, determined to start his own roofing company. Many of the roofs in the area were falling apart, and when he checked the phone book, he found no roofing companies listed.

“That’s when I set out to work,” he said. “I drove around in my pickup truck…asking people if they needed their roof fixed. I didn’t charge much, so they usually said yes. Pretty soon, I was the guy to call if your roof needed to be fixed.”

Not long after he moved to town, Albert began attending town council meeting and was struck by what he calls the town’s “lack of vision.”

“I would ask council members what they saw 10, 15 years down the road for Yanceyville,” he said. “Each time it was the same response: ‘I don’t know.’ They’re supposed to be the leaders, at least have a BS answer—but they don’t even have that.”

Albert grew more engaged in local politics, writing letters to the editor of the Caswell Messenger and creating lawn signs during election seasons. Most local leaders took notice, and some took exception — in particular, the former mayor, Curtis Davis.

Davis was a polarizing figure in Yanceyville after gaining office in 1986. For nearly three decades, he garnered a strong base of supporters, who describe him as an experienced politician with an intimate knowledge of the town’s heritage. His critics, however, claim he abused the power of his office and used fear tactics to coerce both residents and fellow public officials.

In Albert’s words, “Davis was a bully.”

The two men sparred over the years in town council meetings, and on Election Day in 2011, the feud came to a head. While Albert waited in line at his polling place, Davis told the polling supervisors that Albert was ineligible to vote because his apartment supposedly violated the town’s zoning code.

In a series of events that harkened back to the Civil Rights era, Albert was forced to take the day off from work and argue his eligibility to vote before the board of elections. In the end, the board required that Albert vote provisionally, which may have violated state voting laws given that challenges to a voter’s eligibility must be upheld or denied “before the polls are closed on the day the challenge is made.” Albert later filed a formal complaint against Davis with the Caswell County board of elections, arguing that Davis should be held accountable for violating his rights under the 15th Amendment. The board acknowledged that Davis failed to follow the legal procedure for challenging a voter’s eligibility, but declined to take action against him.

The challenge to Albert’s right to vote, and the indifference of government officials, reflects a larger issue over voting rights in North Carolina. In 2013, the Republican majority in the legislature passed House Bill 589, which eliminated same-day voter registration, reduced the number of early-voting days, ended out-of-precinct voting, and shuttered a program that pre-registered high school students. Following the passage of the bill, the U.S. Department of Justice and NAACP filed lawsuits, claiming that the law aimed to suppress the voting rights of minorities.

Abandoned Playground[1]

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

After receiving the package in the mail, James McCaden would often sit in his friend’s living room, thumbing through the paperwork that promised a safe home and improved quality of life. But this promise didn’t sync with the reality he saw around his neighborhood. The installation of water and drainage systems dragged on and rehabilitation efforts slowed — sometimes to a halt. A few of the houses, including his, remained virtually untouched.

Larry Cassell, the owner of the company that won the contract to rehabilitate James’s home, recalls waiting to start construction on the house. “I kept asking, ‘When can we start the job? When can we start the job?’ And I kept being put off,” Cassell says. “The house was in bad shape, but we were going to make it new.”

Cassell continued to call town officials and HUA, but it wasn’t until late 2012 that he finally heard back. “Next thing I knew, Hobbs & Upchurch said, ‘We’re not going to do that house no more,” Cassell recalls. “We’re going to tear it down.’”

Susan Nolan, who worked as a grant management representative at the North Carolina Department of Commerce until 2012, recalls the town’s disorganization and mismanagement while administering the two grants.

“They did have some problems,” she said, “[and] there were also some questions about the administration [in Yanceyville].”

Until leaving the department in 2012, Nolan was in regular communication with town officials and visited Yanceyville several times to assess the progress of the grants.

“In a lot of these small communities, they don’t have the capacity to administer [grants] themselves, so they have to rely on a third-party administrator. That could have been where they ran into some problems.”

To a certain extent, Nolan was right. In late 2012, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations (NCSBI) launched an investigation into fraudulent activities by project administrator Michael Walser. The NCSBI suspected Walser of misappropriating nearly $380,000 from CDBGs in at least 10 municipalities across North Carolina, including more than $50,000 from Yanceyville. These funds were largely misappropriated through duplicate payments to a company Walser owned for lead paint inspection and abatement.

The NCSBI concluded that nearly every local government involved, including Yanceyville, “fail[ed] to provide adequate monitoring and oversight of the Project Administrator’s activities,” which “increased the opportunity for misappropriation of funds.” While Walser’s suspected fraudulence was a stumbling block for nearly every municipality, they all successfully closed out their grants. In Yanceyville, the year and a half after the NCSBI launched its investigation was marked by governmental negligence, indiscretion, and lies — all at the expense of the town’s most vulnerable residents.

Tony Patnode, an employee at HUA, replaced Walser as the project administrator for the Community Revitalization project after Walser left the company. But the appointment was largely nominal — Haynes Brigman, the town manager at the time, inexplicably stopped all construction under the grant for a year after the NCSBI launched its investigation into Walser. Neither the Department of Commerce nor the NCSBI required or suggested the town take such action. Brigman did not return any calls from Think Progress.

Abandoned Barber Shop[1]

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

In the meantime, James continued to pressure the town about the rehabilitation of his home. Over two years had passed since he was forced to relocate, and because the house was still blocked by a wire fence, all of his belongings remained inside. In October of 2013, the mayor reassured James that he had nothing to worry about.

“Mayor Davis said, ‘That’s right, we forgot you—let me get with the town manager and see what we can work out,’” James recalls.

After supposedly speaking with the town manager, Davis told James that 292 First Avenue was still scheduled for rehabilitation, even though construction under the grant was moving slowly. According to James, Davis assured him that if the house wasn’t rehabilitated under the grant, the town could tap into funds at the county level.

It was a vague, unsubstantiated promise. There is no evidence that Davis had access to these funds, nor is there any indication that he contacted officials at the county level regarding this matter.

In late 2013, Haynes Brigman resigned as town manager. An interim town manager served until March of 2014, when he was replaced by Brian Collie, the former county planner in Caswell County. Before leaving office, Brigman submitted an extension request to the Department of Commerce, which gave the town until May 5th, 2014 to close out the grant. It was a last-ditch effort to see that the grant might be completed, but Brigman did little to set Collie up for success.

“This whole grant was not facilitated like it should’ve been,” Collie said in an interview. Records were disorganized, according to Collie, and there had been frequent miscommunications between the town and HUA. “Coming in at the tail end…trying to [reorganize] all those documents was really confusing.”

Collie and Patnode were slow to pick up from where the project left off, and by April, the two were scrambling. The town had to rehabilitate two houses and demolish four, but Patnode was struggling with the preliminary step of getting signatures on demolition agreements. In a correspondence with Collie dated April 11th, 2014, Patnode wrote, “[N]ot all of the property owners of these structures proposed for demolition have agreed to the demolition of the structures… For those that do not agree, the Town will need to initiate code enforcement proceedings, and the property owners will then either need to demolish or remove the structures themselves, or, rehabilitate the structure to meet applicable building codes.”

The stated purpose of the Community Revitalization project was to assist low-income residents in underserved communities. By waiting until the eleventh hour to acquire signatures on demolition agreements, however, the town gave these residents a very small window to make a major decision about what was potentially their most valuable asset. Low-interest loan options for homeowners were available through the grant, which residents could have used to rehabilitate their own homes, but it was too late to initiate that process.

In his defense, Patnode said in an interview, “The state would expect the town to use code enforcement to either clear those vacant dwellings or force the owners to repair them to housing code.”

But this created a paradox for homeowners. They either had to let the town demolish their houses and lose any potential value the property had, or bear the costs of rehabilitation themselves, which would be an extreme financial burden for low-income residents. If none of these actions were taken, the town would enforce dormant building codes, resulting in low-income homeowners paying fines and eventually bearing the costs of demolition anyway.

Gordon

Gordon

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

Down the hill from the Yanceyville town square is a paved lot that most residents refer to as “The Bottom.” A convenience store stood at The Bottom for a number of years, which served as a meeting place for neighbors to drink coffee and exchange local gossip. When the store closed down, people continued to gather outside the building, but it wasn’t the same without the usual foot traffic. A few years later, the town council deemed the building a potential haven for unsafe and illicit activities, and it was torn down.

Occasionally, a few residents in the neighborhood still meet at The Bottom, sitting on plastic chairs and shooting the breeze. Gordon, a lifelong resident of Yanceyville, is a familiar face there.

“Would you believe that we had a Ford and Chevy dealership in town?” he asked. “My uncles used to drive down from Maryland to buy cars down here because they were cheaper.”

This was about 40 years ago, according to Gordon. He admits that the majority of people in town lived in poverty and the local economy was struggling, but there was at least some sign of hope.

“Now, no one comes here to buy nothing,” Gordon continued. “If people didn’t go out and bring money back to this town, it wouldn’t be here.”

In order to revitalize Yanceyville, he said, the town needs to bring in industry. “Something to get these people back to work and jumpstart this community.”

The lack of job opportunities is a looming concern for most Yanceyville residents. Rick, another frequent visitor at The Bottom, has been struggling to find a job for years.

“If you want to work, you got to leave town,” he said. “I want to work, but don’t got no a car, so I’m fucked.”

He often canvases neighborhoods to look for houses being worked on and asks contractors if they need an extra hand. These kinds of jobs are few and far between. If he finds one, it pays very little. “I might make fifteen, twenty dollars in a day,” Rick said. “A person can’t live off that.”

A factor that further complicated Rick’s situation is an old drug arrest on his record. “It was a stupid mistake I made when I was young,” he said. “I was being held in jail and couldn’t make bond. So I figured the only way to get out was to plead guilty, but I didn’t understand the consequences.”

Those consequences continue to haunt him to this day. In a town with few jobs to begin with, declaring he was a convicted felon on applications only further diminished his chances of finding work. When he turned to programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to support himself and his family, he encountered further roadblocks. To be eligible for these programs in North Carolina, low-level drug offenders like Rick must enroll in a drug treatment program (higher-level offenders are barred from receiving benefits altogether). But there are no drug treatment facilities in Yanceyville — the nearest facility is 25 miles away in Burlington. With no car at his disposal, and no public transportation between Yanceyville and Burlington, he has no way to make the weekly commute.

TANF and SNAP benefits have steadily decreased over time across the U.S. In North Carolina, TANF benefits in have fallen by 34.5 percent in the last 20 years. But for someone in Rick’s position, even the smallest amount of assistance can mean the difference between a second chance and getting caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.

It’s a daunting reality, but one that Rick tries to not let overwhelm him. “You just have to take it day by day,” he said.

Gilbert Anderson

Gilbert Anderson

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

“I was told if I moved to Yanceyville, I should bring my own job,” Gilbert Anderson said. “So I did.”

Gilbert opened North Road Bicycle Imports, which specializes in rare touring and road bikes, nine years ago when he moved to town from Raleigh. It’s one of the few open businesses in the town center, but hardly any foot traffic comes through the door.

“When the median income is significantly below the poverty line,” he explained, “and people have no disposable income, they can only afford what they need to get by.”

The bikes in his shop start at around $1,500 — more than the average Yanceyville resident makes in a month. How can a retailer of high-end bicycles survive in a town where many people struggle to buy groceries?

By not relying on his neighbors as customers, according to Gilbert. He ships many of his bikes to customers across North America, Europe, and Asia. With low rent and overhead costs, a business that takes advantage of e-commerce — even one that sells expensive products — can thrive in a small town like Yanceyville.

“But there is one caveat,” Gilbert said. “If the town goes out of its way to turn off your water and electricity, then it probably won’t be a very good town to do business in.”

Over the last few years, Gilbert has received numerous letters from the town stating that his residence violates its zoning code. He lives in a renovated apartment above the bicycle shop, but the town claims that residential spaces are not permitted in the Yanceyville Central Business District.

The letters, in Gilbert’s opinion, are a reaction to his political engagement over the last couple years. Much like his neighbor, Albert Tardy, he has gained a reputation as a political gadfly. Gilbert writes letters to the editor of the local paper and often grills town council members at monthly meetings.

And there may be good reason for him to feel targeted by the town. Approximately 50 residences are located in the Central Business District, according to Gilbert, but only Albert and himself have received letters. In a letter to the county building inspector, Woodrow Bigelow, former town manager Haynes Brigman inexplicably only mentions Albert and Gilbert’s addresses.

“I feel like it’s been an effort to push me out of town,” Gilbert said.

In order to bring his residence into compliance, the town mandated that Gilbert file a Zoning Code Text Amendment, which carried a $300 filing fee. There were no fire or safety hazards in his home, and no renovations were required. To Gilbert, this felt more like extortion than an effort to promote safety in town, so he never filed the amendment. According to Gilbert, Brigman sent another letter to Bigelow, demanding that Gilbert’s electricity be shut off, but the building inspector refused. “[Bigelow] was the one who gave me my building certificate in the first place,” Gilbert said, “so he knew there were no violations and no reason to shut off my electricity.”

On several occasions over the following years, the town shut off Gilbert’s water. Lifelong residents told Gilbert that it was a bullying tactic the town had used for years.

These exchanges with the town have caused some inconveniences, Gilbert admits, but one thing hasn’t changed. Every morning at 8 a.m., he turns the lights on in his shop, unlocks the front door, and is open for business.

The lot at 292 First Ave.

The lot at 292 First Ave.

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

In April of 2014, James McCaden received a call from Tony Patnode, the new project administrator from HUA. “He called and said he was going to tear down my house,” James McCaden recalls. “But I told him, ‘You can’t tear down my house.’”

It was a personal plea from James, but he may have had legal standing, too. According to the original grant agreement signed by Mayor Davis, the Department of Commerce requires that towns request written permission before changing the use of real property under a CDBG — for example, proposing to rehabilitate a home and later demolishing it. The town never received permission from the Department of Commerce to change the use of 292 First Avenue, and the Department of Commerce has no record of the town requesting permission.

Yanceyville also failed to meet the federal regulation that requires towns to provide “affected citizens with reasonable notice of, and opportunity to comment” on the proposed changed use of real property. James was not given an opportunity to address town officials until the next town council meeting on May 6. During public comment, he had three minutes to convince the town council that his home shouldn’t be demolished.

“When you got the big grant to fix up all these houses, [the town] promised me they were going to fix up the house at 292 First [Avenue],” James said on the recording of the meeting. “I been out of that house three years—now I got a guy calling me…[and] he wants to tear it down.”

“I’ll address a little bit of that,” Mayor Davis responded. “That was under the [$850,000] grant, and that money got frozen, taken away from us. And there’s nothing we can do when they take funds away from you…when you fooling with federal money—you know, they can take it, or they can give it.”

According to town manager Brian Collie, the grants funds were not frozen. “That’s not right — I don’t know why [Davis] said that,” Collie said in an interview.

But it wasn’t the only time the excuse of a lack of funding was offered up as a defense.

“They got out of doing some things they was supposed to do…said they didn’t have the money,” recalls David Totten, whose house at 271 First Avenue was supposed to be rehabilitated at the end of the grant.

The parts of the rehabilitation that the town did complete, he says, were poorly executed — in particular, an improperly installed floor. “The building inspector made them redo a lot of stuff,” he added. “There are [still] things I see that I don’t like, but I have to deal with it.”

In reality, the town had ample grant funding at its disposal. On May 1, about a week before the town council meeting, Mayor Davis submitted an extension request and a revised budget to the Department of Commerce, which showed that grant funds were not frozen or depleted. The extension request was submitted as the town realized the open rehabilitation and demolition projects couldn’t be completed by May 5 — construction on some of the sites hadn’t even begun.

At the town council meeting, in the face of bureaucratic indifference, James conceded defeat. For years, he waited for construction to begin on his house, waited for the day he could return home and start his life again. But that day, it became clear, would never come. In the end, he asked to salvage what he could from the home.

“My furniture is still in there,” James said on the recording of the council meeting. “I can’t get in because you put a wire fence across the front, so I [couldn’t] put my furniture in storage… I don’t think it’s fair.”

According to James, the town council agreed to give him time to arrange for his belongings to be removed from the house before it was demolished. “After the meeting,” James later recalled, “one of the councilmen even offered to help move my stuff with his truck.”

Collie, however, claims the town never agreed to give James a specific amount of time to remove his belongings from the home.

On May 7th, the town received approval for its extension request, but was only given three weeks to rehabilitate two houses and demolish four, including James’s house. “We were on a tight timeline,” recalls Conrad Wrencher, a project supervisor who assisted Patnode.

The day after the town council meeting, James was in dialysis at a hospital 20 miles away in Reidsville. During the procedure, patients are not permitted to use any electronic devices, including cell phones. When James left the hospital and turned on his phone, he had 17 voicemails.

“They were all from friends and family,” he said. “They were calling to tell me my home was being bulldozed.”

By the time he arrived at 292 First Avenue, it was too late. The house was flattened and debris was being hauled away.

“I cried and cried when they tore down that house—they destroyed everything I had,” he said. “My furniture, my antique china sets, my daddy’s watches and ring… All my photo albums were in there, as well as the Bible that had my family history in it.”

Collie claims 292 First Avenue was torn down at least a week after the town council meeting, but was unable to locate any documents to verify his assertion. The contracting company that demolished the home, Farmer Transport, did not respond to a request for comment.

At the next town council meeting on June 3, when James confronted him about the demolition, Collie stated there was no way for town officials to contact former tenants like James. In an interview, Collie said the owners of 292 First Avenue approved its demolition and said there was nothing in the house that needed to be removed. “Not until the home was torn down was I aware or anybody [else in the government] aware that he had belongings in the home,” Collie said.

Patnode echoed these claims. “I didn’t see a lot of belongings in the house,” he said in an interview. While he didn’t actually go inside the house to check, he stated, “I did stick my head in there.” Patnode relied on the homeowners’ statement that the house did not contain anything that needed to be removed, even though they had not been to Yanceyville in years.

In his write-up of the May 6th town council minutes, however, Collie states, “[James] said that he has furniture in the house.”

At the June 3 town council meeting, officials conceded that the grant-funded project fell short of its original goals. Rehabilitation was completed on only five out of nine proposed properties and demolition was completed on four out of six proposed properties (though one of these was 292 First Avenue, which originally was not supposed to be demolished).

When homeowners or tenants are displaced as a result of construction under a CDBG, they are entitled to relocation assistance to help them find a new home. But James never received assistance from the town — not when he was forced to “temporarily” relocate at the outset, nor at the end when his home was demolished. Closer examination of the May 1 budget revision submitted to the Department of Commerce points to a troubling explanation: $44,000 was taken out of Relocation Assistance and split between Rehabilitation and Clearance Activities (i.e., demolition), effectively gutting the part of the grant that helps people find new homes if they are displaced. The money that should have helped James find a new home and start a new life was instead used to demolish his house.

What’s worse, due to the unfinished rehabilitation and demolition, tens of thousands of dollars were left unspent at the closeout of the grant. Instead of reallocating this money for relocation assistance and helping residents like James, however, the town chose to return the funds to the state.

Project Sign[1]

CREDIT: Scott Rodd

In the year and a half since the grant closed out, James’s health rapidly declined. He lost nearly all movement in his legs, and his heart and kidney conditions significantly worsened. He was recently admitted to the Avanté rest home in Reidsville, where his health is monitored around the clock.

“The town could’ve sent me a card and apologized,” James said, “but they never did—they never did.”

James is unsure if he will be able to leave the rest home any time soon. It pains him to think that he might not ever return to his hometown of Yanceyville.

Today, if you sift below the thin layer of topsoil where the house at 292 First Avenue once stood, it isn’t hard to find the artifacts from James’s former life — a fork, a plaid shirt, the torn pages of an old book. The area under the Community Revitalization project looks more or less as it did when the project started and remains one of the poorest neighborhoods in Yanceyville. It’s hard to tell where the $1.7 million in grant money went. The handful of updated houses are matched by conspicuously empty lots on every block. Even the sign that once boasted the inevitable success of the project has blended into the neighborhood –damaged, dirty, and forgotten.

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