Sitting on his worn couch Wednesday, Camelot Apartments resident James Smith asked a question he’s been contemplating for a while now: How does a convicted felon, living on a fixed income and forced to move by no fault of his own, not only find a new home, but also scrape together enough money to pay for relocation?
Smith is one of an unknown amount of residents that could soon be displaced from his home after the city declared three of the four North Montgomery Street parcels owned by Camelot Court LLC a public health nuisance and the Starkville Board of Aldermen voted to condemn four of its six apartment buildings on Tuesday.
The Dispatch could not determine how many residents will be affected by the action, as many apartments are already abandoned and a door-to-door canvasing effort, escorted by Starkville police officers at the behest of the city because of the area’s high crime rate, failed to yield many responses.
While property owners have four months to resolve sewage overflows, the city gave tenants 60 days to vacate. If the issues are not resolved, the city is likely to demolish the condemned buildings.
Many of the residents who spoke to The Dispatch said living on paltry fixed incomes greatly narrows their search for a new home simply because they can’t afford the going rate of many Starkville apartments.
“If I have to pay more, I can’t even eat,” Smith said. “Right now, I don’t know where I’m going or if I’ll be able to go anywhere. There’s a house out (in Oktibbeha County’s Rock Hill community), but in order for me to get that out there, I’ve got to have money to pay for the house, then pay for the gas (and other utility transfers) and the security deposit. You’re unable to do that because you don’t have the money to do it.”
Smith’s past legal trouble marginalizes him further, he said, because many places do not want him as a tenant.
“Say they find the health issues and can’t clean it up. I still got to go. If they come in and try to fix the building, they’re going to have to get us out of here to fix the building,” Smith said. “What you’re looking at here is that, either way, you’re still going to have to move regardless of what comes up. But where is there to go?”
Camelot’s troubles with the city over sewage overflows began on Aug. 8 when Starkville Utilities filed a code complaint. Three days later, the property owner stated the issue would be resolved, city documents show, but a subsequent Aug. 30 inspection found the violation was not remedied.
On Sept. 9, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality investigated the issue and found the ground near one of the buildings “appeared to be saturated with sewage.” City inspectors observed the problem again on Oct. 18, and the city issued a code violation letter the same day.
State law requires property owners to repair malfunctioning sewage systems or install properly constructed infrastructure within 30 days after MDEQ discovers violations.
City records show a cap was placed on the pipe where the overflow was occurring on Oct. 26, but overflows were then reported from other areas of the property. Community Development Director Buddy Sanders said water samples taken after the cap was removed on Oct. 31 showed “the fecal count was so high it could not be registered.”
The issue was again reported during a Nov. 30 inspection.
“During the summer, raw sewage started coming out of the side of my building. I said, you need to get this fixed, because you can’t even open the door and get a breath of fresh air. All you smell is crap,” said resident Sherron Mitchell. “Every time you use the bathroom, you have to plunge. That’s not sanitary. That’s terrible.”
Each resident The Dispatch interviewed said they have had difficulty contacting the property owners about the lingering sewage issue and other problems, including widespread littering.
Attorney R. Corey Anthony and J. Slade Kraker are identified as Camelot Court LLC’s managers by the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.
Neither returned calls or messages Wednesday.
Statistics Starkville Police Department released show officers responded to 131 calls originating at Camelot Apartments from Feb. 23 to Aug. 23.
Thirty-six of those calls stemmed from the reports of simple assaults, disturbances, loud music, loitering, fights and narcotics, while four dealt with burglaries, aggravated assaults and at least one shooting.
During that time frame, police were responding to a call at Camelot every 29 hours, on average.
In March, SPD arrested two minors — Tomas Talib Bradford, 15, and Abudral Funtane Lee, 17 — in connection with the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Dacorian K. Coleman at the apartment complex.
An Oktibbeha County grand jury indicted both men on armed robbery and second-degree murder charges in July. Their court dates are set for January.
“I feel very unsafe, especially after I saw that boy get killed right here. He was laying right there on the sidewalk,” Mitchell said while pointing at the building across from her front door. “I’ve been terrified ever since. I haven’t gotten a moment of sleep, peace or rest.”
Another resident, who asked not to be identified, said the majority of criminal activity Camelot experiences comes from non-residents.
“People just come here and break into the apartments once they’ve been abandoned,” she said as she took a break from cleaning out her apartment in anticipation of moving.
She said she would consider returning to Camelot if the owners remedied the health issues, improved the buildings and tried to attract “better renters,” as she enjoys the complex’s location.
Her apartment is one of two units in the now-condemned building that are currently inhabited. The rest, she said, had been abandoned for some time, and empty units draw routine vandalism.
“It’s sad. If people weren’t doing what they were doing, like littering and breaking in these apartments, maybe we’d stay,” said Rebecca Jones, who lives in an apartment that is not affected by the city’s order.
Both Jones and Calvin McMorris said they’ve been trying to find a new place to live for a while, but apartment complexes have turned down their applications “just because of the name Camelot.”
“We don’t be out there. We stay in here,” McMorris said. “We might hear something and look out the window, but we’re not out there. The trouble is out there.”
“We’re looking (for new places), but it’s hard to find something,” Jones added.
Tuesday’s resolution against Camelot was approved 5-0, with Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn abstaining from the vote.
That night, Mayor Parker Wiseman told The Dispatch the city was obligated to solve the sewage issue, as it is causing a public health issue for residents. Any civil matters, he said, would be between the residents and the property owners, and those issues depend on the language of their lease agreements.
“It’s an unfortunate situation; however, the city has an important responsibility to maintain a healthy and safe environment for the citizens of Starkville,” Wiseman said Wednesday.
Wiseman acknowledged the potential homelessness of the soon-to-be-evicted Camelot residents also posed a public health threat but the city had to address the complex’s condition through its statutes.
“The city has a responsibility to ensure structures built do not pose a danger to the people who inhabit them and the public at large,” he said. “When conditions pose an immediate danger, we cannot allow the danger to persist.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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