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AVL Watchdog

Hospitals Curtail Services as COVID Cases Surge to Record Levels

Unvaccinated patients fill beds as hospital workers fall ill

Slide presentation by Dr. William Hathaway, chief medical officer of HCA Mission. The latest surge began just after Christmas. // Screengrab, with added arrow, by Asheville Watchdog

Local hospitals, including Mission, are once again reeling under a perfect storm of pandemic pressures: record infection rates, overwhelmingly among people who refuse to be vaccinated; a sudden spike in the number of healthcare workers who are infected, on top of an already critical staffing shortage; and a shortage of COVID-19 test kits.

The latest surge began Dec. 27, following Christmas gatherings, William Hathaway, Mission’s chief medical officer, reported to the hospital’s medical staff on Monday. Children and people under the age of 44 are among the fastest-growing groups of patients, he said, and the rise in infected doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who care for them was almost literally off the charts.

State and local official reports indicate that there are now more COVID-19 infections in the Asheville metropolitan area than at any time since the pandemic began two years ago.

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Indiana man says name was used in Buncombe real estate deals ‘without my knowledge’

NC Secretary of State's office admits mishandling complaint

Eddie George's house in Gary, Indiana // Photo: Lake County (Indiana) Assessor

On paper, Eddie George was a savvy real estate investor, chairman of VLM Investments LLC that bought and sold nearly $1 million worth of properties in Buncombe County in a little more than a year.

But George, who is 65 and lives in a modest home in Gary, Indiana, alleges he had no knowledge of VLM or its business dealings and did not sign the legal documents bearing his name, according to relatives and a 2018 complaint he filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State.

George is the uncle of Lisa K. Roberts of Asheville, who, as Asheville Watchdog previously reported, has negotiated deals for investor Robert Perry Tucker II to acquire houses and lands from Buncombe homeowners, many of them elderly and/or Black, at far below market rates.

Roberts’s attorney,

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‘Missing’ Heirs: Local Attorneys Tell Court That Property Owners Can’t Be Found

“I’ve been in Asheville 20 years,” says one owner, easily located by Asheville Watchdog

Robert P. Tucker II, left, and Peter Henry at virtual court hearing // Screen capture by Sally Kestin

At stake inside a Buncombe County courtroom were a grandfather’s legacy and a family’s inheritance.

Asheville real estate investor Robert Perry Tucker II had just purchased 10 acres along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but nine siblings in the Lyda family still had a claim to approximately 25 percent of the property, left to them by their grandfather.

So Tucker’s company went to court. Just three months later and without any input from the Lydas, Tucker’s company won a judgment that stripped the family of its land. The Lydas never had a chance to defend their ownership because, two of the brothers said, they never knew about the case.

Tucker’s lawyer, Peter R. Henry of Arden, reported to the court that none of the nine Lyda siblings could be located. Ile Adaramola, another attorney who had ties to Henry and Tucker outside the case,

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New Report Sounds Alarm on Affordable Housing — Again

Region needs 20,000 units to meet demand; gap is widest in Buncombe

The need for affordable housing in western North Carolina is getting more severe, a new study commissioned by the Dogwood Health Trust found.

By 2025 the region will need 20,000 more units for lower-income households, the study found, with 70 percent, or 14,000, of those new units needed in just three counties: Buncombe, Henderson, and Haywood.

The study, by Bowen National Research, conducted in the first six months of 2021 and presented to the Dogwood Trust last month, also found that:

  • Nearly half of all households in Buncombe County (48.5 percent) were already “cost-burdened,” meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of income toward housing; nearly two in five households in Buncombe are “severely” cost-burdened, paying half or more of all income to meet housing costs.
  • Ninety-two percent of regional employers say the shortage of affordable housing is causing problems in attracting new workers,

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Cawthorn’s Uncivil War

Congressman’s invasion into new district is triggering an intra-party reckoning

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, and Rep. Mark Walker at an American Renewal Project event in October. In return for Trump's blessing, Walker will not oppose Cawthorn ally Ted Budd for U.S. Senate.

When Madison Cawthorn revealed his plan to abandon western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District to seek reelection in a neighboring — and seemingly friendlier — district, he exuded confidence, even cockiness, about the outcome.

“We are taking ground for constitutional conservatism,” he wrote on Twitter, describing his move into the adjacent 13th District as if leading a righteous crusade into infidel territory. Otherwise, the 26-year-old Republican added, “I’m afraid that another establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican would prevail there. I will not let that happen.” 

Initially his bravado in jumping the district line — a legal, though rare move — seemed politically sound and his victory assured. As a rising media star on the GOP’s far-right fringe and armed with the endorsement of ex-President Trump, Cawthorn had raised $2.3 million toward reelection by the end of September, with more pouring in. 

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Asheville Watchdog Is Selected As Journalism Service Program Host

Local nonprofit news team to add full-time reparations beat reporter in 2022

Report for America, a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities, today named Asheville Watchdog a host newsroom for 2022 and 2023. The award will help support a full-time reporter — Asheville Watchdog‘s first full-time paid employee — to cover topics related to Asheville’s and Buncombe County’s 2020 commitments for reparations to the region’s Black communities.

“We’re grateful to Report for America and to The GroundTruth Project for selecting Asheville Watchdog for this honor,” said Bob Gremillion, publisher. “And we’re especially grateful for the support of our donors in the local community, whose generosity gives us the resources we need to participate in the program. We look forward to welcoming our new reporter to Asheville.”

Asheville Watchdog was selected from among scores of applicants for the Report for America host program,

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On Guard in Asheville

Asheville Watchdog is powered by a cadre of accomplished journalists who retired to the North Carolina mountains.

Asheville Watchdogs, from left: Tom Fiedler, Sally Kestin, and Bob Gremillion

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared Nov. 18 in The Assembly, a digital magazine about the people, institutions, and ideas that shape North Carolina. It is reprinted here with permission.]

The view from the deck stretches past a wall of changing trees to the jagged ridge of the Blue Ridge mountains. On a rainy afternoon in October, the sun had just begun teasing its way through the clouds. 

Tucked in the hills of north Asheville, the deck is at the home of Sally Kestin and her husband, Bob Gremillion. They were joined that day by three other retired journalists, transforming the deck into a sort of newsroom for a digital venture that’s not only filling gaps in western North Carolina journalism, but trying to become a model in the state’s rapidly changing media environment.

Kestin and Gremillion started the Asheville Watchdog in early 2020.

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A Box Full of Cash and an Empty Promise

In Part 3: “If this is legal, it shouldn’t be,” a local lawmaker says

Most homeowners could never fathom strangers acquiring a portion of their property, obtaining a court order to sell it without their consent and depriving them of the value they’d accrued over years or decades of ownership.

There are legal protections against that, Tasha D’Ascanio thought — until it happened to her.

D’Ascanio and her uncle, Derrell Ray Pettit Jr., had each inherited half of a one-acre tract just outside West Asheville, with a tax value of $123,600, that had been home to three generations of their family.

But investors including Robert Perry Tucker II acquired the land and through an exploitive but legal process cut the family out of its fortune, an Asheville Watchdog investigation found. In the end, D’Ascanio got nothing, and Pettit ended up homeless for five months.

“I don’t know what happened,” D’Ascanio,

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Imperfectly Legal: Forced Sales Hurt Heirs, Poor Homeowners

Part 2: Asheville-area investors exploit Jim Crow-era law

Five hundred dollars was all it took for Robert Perry Tucker II to gain an interest in an Asheville home that had been owned by a Black family since 1918. 

Two elderly heirs signed deeds selling their shares of the home to a Tucker company for $250 apiece. With their ownership in hand, Tucker’s company used a Reconstruction-era law to force a sale of the entire property, and another Tucker company bought it at auction for $3,750.

The eight heirs whose family had owned the property for a century received $445 each, the auction commissioner reported. The Tucker company that bought the property sold it in three months for $55,000.

Robert Tucker, left, and his attorney, Peter Henry, at an April hearing held virtually in Buncombe County Superior Court.READ MORE

Real Estate Deals Strip Elderly, Poor of Homes, Land, and Inheritances

In Part 1 of our series, a local investor is accused of fraud

Mary Thompson lost 17 years of home equity. Photo credit: Pat Barcas, Asheville Watchdog

Many were elderly or Black homeowners in distress. Some were vulnerable to a Reconstruction-era property law abused so often that it has been rewritten in other states, but not North Carolina.

And most were left embittered or poorer by their encounters with Buncombe County real estate investor Robert Perry Tucker II, who acquired their houses and lands at far below market rates, a year-long Asheville Watchdog investigation found.

In a review of more than four dozen of Tucker’s real estate transactions since 2014, Asheville Watchdog found his companies have acquired interests in Buncombe properties for as little as $250 — or nothing at all. Many of the sales appear to have generated profits for Tucker while erasing years if not generations of home equity for property owners, nearly half of them Black.

Tucker, an attorney,

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