Thursday, June 19, 2014 12:01 am
Inside the Bel-Aire Motel
Residents say closure would leave them with no place to go
Franklin Fite is a collector.
The small, one-room apartment he shares with his wife at the Bel-Aire Motel in Springfield is decorated with Pez dispensers, stamps, coins and assorted trinkets. A significant part of the apartment is also devoted to canned goods. Fite says he hoards food because he was once homeless and had to go without. Naturally, he says he never wants to be homeless again.
But it may not be up to him. The Bel-Aire Motel has come under intense scrutiny by Springfield building inspectors, who have alleged hundreds of violations against the motel. Gopal Motwani, who owns the Bel-Aire and lives in Florida, would owe the city more than $100,000 in fines if the citations are upheld by an administrative court judge. Motwani hopes to sell the motel, and the city may even shut it down. If either of those happen, Fite and his neighbors may be out on the street.
Gopal Motwani lives in a gated, guarded subdivision in Weston, Florida – the kind of place with immaculately landscaped streets lined with palm trees. The neighbors not only have pools, but most of the pools are enclosed in oversized sunrooms. Valued at nearly half a million dollars, according to public records from the Broward County Property Appraiser, Motwani’s house contains about 2,300 square feet of floor space. Motwani could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, his tenants at the Bel-Aire pay between $400 and $500 per month to live in one-room apartments with just enough room for a bed, a couch, a refrigerator and a television. The rooms have small bathrooms but no kitchens.
Nevertheless, many of Motwani’s tenants speak highly of him, saying he has forgiven debts, given them jobs and fixed problems with the building as they came up.
Brady Tucker, who lives next door to Fite at the Bel-Aire, says most of the rooms at the motel are clean and well-kept, but there are a handful of tenants who “live like slobs” and cause the types of problems cited by Springfield building inspectors. Fite adds that one recently evicted neighbor had cockroaches that spread to other apartments when an exterminator sprayed the vacated room.
Although the rooms are small, the ones viewed by Illinois Times last week seemed clean enough to be livable. At least two vacant rooms were under renovation with new tile floors and new paint jobs. The motel’s pool, which had previously garnered citations from building inspectors, has been filled in and covered with a brick patio. Fite says the building also has a new roof, and the brick exterior was recently power-washed.
However, city building inspectors have cited the Bel-Aire for numerous problems in other rooms, including serious ones like mold growing on walls.
City spokesman Nathan Mihelich says there are currently 700 building code violations alleged against the Bel-Aire, and the city has served management with notice of another round of inspections to be done on an undetermined date. Mihelich says any new infractions discovered then will be combined with the 700 existing allegations for an administrative court hearing in August.
Tucker says the motel has an unfair reputation as a magnet for drugs and prostitution. Instead, he says the motel is safer – and better maintained – than the house he previously rented in a high-crime Springfield neighborhood.
“There are some clowns here, but you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Tucker said, adding that he works six days per week as a maintenance man.
Around 130 people live in the Bel-Aire’s 80 rooms, by Fite’s estimate, although he says a handful of the rooms are vacant. Of the eight Bel-Aire residents interviewed by Illinois Times, all of them said they would have nowhere else to go if the motel closes. Many of the tenants are on a fixed income and rely on disability payments or other public aid programs.
Karen Fliger, who lives with Fite at the Bel-Aire, says she lost her job but was able to find work in the Bel-Aire office.
“That’s the only thing that’s keeping a roof over our heads,” Fliger said. “I have no other income. If this closes down, we’re homeless.”
Mihelich says Sandy Robinson, the city’s director of community relations, is contacting Springfield-area charities and housing groups to provide options for Bel-Aire residents when the motel closes. Robinson could not be reached for details.
“That is foremost on everybody’s mind, helping the residents get out of the deplorable conditions they’re living in, but then have a good place to stay when the doors are finally shut on this place,” Mihelich said.
Springfield alderman Cory Jobe, who represents Ward 6 containing the Bel-Aire, says he has been pushing the city to close down the motel and rehouse its residents for about three years.
"The mayor, to his credit, has done a lot with code enforcement," Jobe said, referring to Springfield mayor Michael Houston. "But he has the ability to shut that building down and condemn it. For two years, the mayor has done nothing to find alternative housing for these people, and now they are. I'm not giving up on the Bel-Aire. We’ve got to get those residents out of there."
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.