Wednesday at the Hallmark Inn was marked by residents packing up belongings and trying to make arrangements to stay somewhere else, high emotions, tears, and police cars when one woman began screaming uncontrollably. Then came relief.
Residents at the motel, 3730 E. Washington Blvd., began the day by preparing to move out in a hurry: Fort Wayne Neighborhood Code Enforcement had condemned the building Tuesday and expected to shut it down at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Officials said the hotel was unsafe for habitation, with stairwells, balconies, and parts of the foundation in a significantly deteriorated state.
“The repairs they have made have been substandard,” said Cindy Joyner, deputy director of Neighborhood Code. “At this point, we feel like we don’t have any other recourse than to move through the condemnation process for the health and safety of the people there.”
All that changed at 1:30 p.m., when Allen Circuit Court Judge Thomas Felts signed an order enjoining the department from enforcing the order and granting a hearing on the matter, set for March 12. News reached the motel about a half-hour later.
Motel guests, most of whom live there, cheered the news that they could stay.
“I love this place,” said Shane Martin, who has lived at the Hallmark with his wife Victoria and pit bull Sooki for about five months. “They’ve done nothing but help us when no one else would.”
Manager Hira Sonani said 40 or 50 of the motel’s 130 rooms are rentable, with the rest undergoing extensive remodeling. Sonani said that since purchasing the motel about a year ago, owner Raj Patel has invested more than $200,000 in renovating the old building.
“Whoever had it before us, they never spent a dime on this place,” Sonani said. “So no matter how much you pour into it, it’s not going to be new.”
Sonani showed reporters renovated rooms, which feature new carpet, paint, furniture and fixtures. The ones that have not been renovated have signs that say “KEEP OUT: Uninhabitable,” posted by the Allen County Building Department and signed Jan. 14.
Martin said management has done a great job with the renovations so far.
“Every time we bring something to their attention to be fixed, they’re there within a half-hour to fix it,” Martin said. “I love these people here.”
Resident William Lee has also been at the Hallmark about five months.
“They’re doing great improvements,” Lee said. “It looks very nice and I am very pleased.”
Sonani said it seems that Neighborhood Code’s mission is to shut them down.
“They’ve tried every possible way to harass us,” she said. “Every week at least, we see someone from Neighborhood Code here taking pictures. Everything you do is not enough for them.”
Neighborhood Code’s Joyner said that’s a typical response.
“Property owners typically are not happy when we show up and say there’s violations,” Joyner said. “But if the violations were not there, we wouldn’t be there.”
Joyner said the department’s case against the property goes back a year, and that there are a host of minor violations they haven’t cited while they concentrated on the major ones involving the structure.
As to the court order, Joyner said it only grants a hearing on the condemnation rather than allowing it to proceed administratively.
“If I were an owner, I’d probably do the same thing to try to stay (the order),” she said. “We’ll provide our evidence and I’m sure the owner will provide their evidence, and the court will make a decision.”
Officials were at the motel in January when Marian R. Clark, 41, and Robert Boyko, 42, both of Monroeville, called the health department to complain about a lack of heat in their room. The health department called Neighborhood Code, which called police when officials found Clark and Boyko’s seven children in “deplorable” and “putrid” conditions in a urine-soaked room and sharing food with animals on the floor.
Sonani said the motel provides a clean, safe room, but management has no control over how people live within that space. Clark and Boyko were arrested on neglect charges.
Sonani said that while it’s true many of the residents have criminal histories that prevent them from renting elsewhere, those people need a place to live, too.
“They need a place to stay,” she said. “They’ve got to go somewhere. We try to keep a cheap rent because people can afford it.”