COOLEEMEE, N.C. (AP) - The little white house on South Main Street, from the road, looks perfectly fine.
The 2-bedroom, 1-bath dwelling is best described as modest; realtors might call it a “handyman’s special” or a “fixer-upper. It was built in 1920, and the legal description in Davie County property tax records - lot 294 Erwin Mills - indicates that it originally was constructed to house textile workers.
For years, it was home to a man named Stevie Smith. Following his death in 2016, for a short time, the little house became a symbol of hope when Smith’s sister donated it to a nonprofit organization for use as transitional housing for the homeless.
It was a feel good story lauded with a splashy story on the front page of the local weekly.
But instead of an enduring example of local philanthropy, the little house on South Main turned into something else entirely: a cautionary tale littered with regret and hard lessons for all involved.
A headline from November 2016 in the Davie County Enterprise Record neatly sums up the upbeat mood of goodwill.
“A Home for Thanksgiving … Family’s Gift Will Help Others Down On Their Luck”
Who wouldn’t love such a story?
John Steven “Stevie” Smith passed away suddenly on Easter that year. His sister, Alice Hanes and her husband Chris, bought the house from his estate and decided that its highest, best use might be to give it to Just Hope Inc., a relatively new local nonprofit that seemed to be making a big impact in the community.
Hanes approached Krystal Dumas, the organization’s founder and executive director, about accepting such a gift. A plan was formulated and sealed over a handshake.
“The board members and I were overwhelmed with their kindness and generosity,” Dumas told the paper in 2016. “We were honored that they would want us to take over something that meant so much to Alice and her family in memory of her brother.”
The follow through, however, didn’t match the vision. Converting such a large donation into usable, functional transition housing wouldn’t be as easy as slapping up fresh paint and putting in new furniture.
Opposition, some vocal and some passive, cropped up as the NIMBY - Not In My BackYard - crowd reared its head. Everybody wants to help the homeless; just not next door.
So the house sat, and plans evaporated. Naturally eager to see progress, Hanes tried being patient.
She said 2016 was a perfect storm for her family. Stevie died, and her husband took an early buyout from his company. And they had to deal with the house in Cooleemee. “We bought out (my siblings) shares and decided to donate it,” Hanes said. “We liked what (Just Hope) did.”
But when months started turning into years, she began to ask questions and prod Dumas for updates.
“We were poor growing up,” Hanes said. ”We were just trying to return the favor.”
There were problems inside the house, which is to be expected in a structure that old. Hanes knew about some - heating, plumbing, moldy paint - but didn’t think they were insurmountable. The chatter after the donation had it that volunteers could handle things with enough time and energy.
“It’s an old house, but it was good enough for my brother,” she said.
Dumas recollects things differently, however. She reels off a longer list of issues ranging from rotten flooring, electric wiring, asbestos abatement and says estimates for repairs ran to $75,000.
Just Hope operates on an annual budget of $125,000 raised through donations and sales at a thrift store in Mocksville. The tax value of the property runs to $66,430 - an annual bill of $795.43 including county, town and fire protection taxes.
“I couldn’t morally and ethically spend that kind of money (on repairs),” Dumas said.
More time passed, and still no movement or solutions presented themselves. The little house on Main Street was sold in August to a contractor.
“I just found out that it was sold,” Hanes said. “We had a voluntary agreement to use for transitional housing. I’m beyond angry. It’s very frustrating. She didn’t have the decency to tell me they sold the house.”
REGRETS AND RECRIMINATIONS
Davie County is a small place where people quickly learn about goings on and form opinions.
“I am fully aware of Mrs. Hanes’ displeasure of how our board/agency handled the house that her and her husband donated as this is a very small town and she has done some talking already,” Dumas wrote in a response to an email setting up an interview.
Just Hope, she said, was just hitting its stride in 2016 six years after its formal founding. The Hanes’ gift was a large one and supporters weren’t quite sure how to handle it.
“When it was donated, we never went inside,” she said. “It was our first major gift.”
An appraisal was given free of charge, she said, and it was perfunctory. The scope of needed repairs was discovered gradually one piece at a time.
In hindsight, that big Thanksgiving splash didn’t help matters, either. Instead of congratulations and offers to help, the grumbling began.
“That stuff in the paper caused hard feelings,” Dumas said. “There was tons of backlash.”
And so a true feel-good story unraveled as high hopes and altruism gave way to hard feelings and recriminations.
“They didn’t tell me they were going to sell,” Hanes said. “It was never used for the intent it was given. I’m just heartbroken. We could have donated it to another charity.”
Nothing was put in writing before the paperwork was filed finalizing the gift; the deal was consummated by handshakes and fueled by goodwill. “I guess we should have (had a formal contract),” Hanes said.
A lawyer, Dumas said, advised the organization that since the house was a donation without written strings attached, it could be sold at any time for any price for any reason without legal blowback.
Still, Dumas admits mistakes were made but that they were born of inexperience and exuberance rather than malice.
“We’ve grown since then and learned lessons,” Dumas said.
Communication could certainly have been better - at the beginning and in the end.
And yet despite the heartache and acrimony, Dumas forwards a flicker of hope that some semblance of the original plan can be salvaged. The new owner is a contractor, she said, and is amenable to working with Just Hope to find a struggling single family to rent it at a budget-friendly price.
“Sort of, kind-of the same thing as we talked about in the beginning,” Dumas said.
Maybe it works out that way. And maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.
“I just wish they’d told me,” Hanes said.
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