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In Tacoma, Redevelopment Claims A Building That Was A 'Last Stop' Before Homelessness

Will James
Juan Morales has lived at the Merkle Hotel for about five years, and now plans to live in his car

The same story has played out again and again in overheated housing markets across the U.S.

A developer buys an old, broken-down apartment building. Tenants find notices on their doors telling them they have weeks or months to move out. Then the developer fixes up the building for new tenants who can pay more. 

The trend has sent unknown numbers of people with low incomes scrambling to find housing in Western Washington. Some of them end up homeless, contributing to a regional crisis.

Tacoma's Merkle Hotel is one of the latest buildings to be swept up in a pattern of redevelopment and displacement.

For years, the building had a reputation as a last stop before homelessness, and a first step out of it. 

Tenants pay $395 a month, a third of Tacoma's average rent. They 're spared the up-front costs of moving into an apartment, like first and last month's rent or a security deposit.

Credit Will James / KNKX
Alfred Kirk has lived at the Merkle Hotel about 15 years

"I’ve heard this place referred to as, quote, the last stop before the mission," said Alfred Kirk, who has lived there about 15 years, referring to a shelter called the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

"It was also referred to as kind of the first stop on the way up," Kirk said. "That kind of leaves a void, you know?"

In early 2018, local developer Eli Moreno bought the Merkle Hotel for just over $1 million, with plans to convert it into "micro-units" for students at the University of Washington Tacoma.

"We are very excited about this project because it will contribute to the great changes happening in that neighborhood, and serves our mission and commitment to preserve and repurpose old historic properties in the city," Moreno said in a news release at the time. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Credit Will James / KNKX
Plywood covers many of the windows at the Merkle Hotel

KNKX reporter Will James spent time with tenants of the Merkle Hotel as they rushed to find housing before an Oct. 31 deadline. You can listen to that story above.

"A Cheap, Lockable Room"

As the days ticked away toward Oct. 31, employees of the nonprofit Comprehensive Life Resources, who were charged with helping the tenants find housing, feared many would end up homeless.

"It sucks that there's not a lot we can do at this point," said Audrey Oliver, part of the team trying to secure housing for the tenants. "It's pretty discouraging."

They looked as far away as Moscow, Idaho, for apartments the residents could afford.

In other cases, they prepared tenants for homelessness.

"We need to start looking into shelters and having reality checks with the tenants and just kind of having those sucky conversations with them," Oliver said.

The Merkle Hotel is in dire need of repair. Windows are covered in plywood. A bed bug infestation has persisted for years. Some tenants are covered in bites and wounds from scratching them. 

Yet Nathan Blackmer, another member of the team from Comprehensive Life Resources, said the disappearance of buildings like the Merkle Hotel is a factor in Western Washington's homelessness crisis. 

At one time, he said, desperate people could find a room they could afford somewhere in the city, even if they were disabled or had low incomes. But no longer.

"The answer is a cheap, lockable room," Blackmer said. "I mean, 'the answer' I say, like I know. But it feels like that’s the thing that’s missing, right?"

"Feeding a Fire"

Obstacles to housing the Merkle Hotel tenants include high rents and income requirements. Many of the tenants live off about $750 a month from Social Security. Also, because they have no leases at the Merkle Hotel, they have gaps in their leasing history. 

Credit Will James / KNKX
Leonard Johnson's arms are covered in bites and wounds from a bed bug infestation

Leonard Johnson was homeless before he moved to the Merkle Hotel. As move-out day approached, he laid plans to take a Greyhound bus to Yakima, 150 miles away, to search for housing he could afford.

"I don't even know if I'll be comfortable in Yakima," he said. "I don't know too much about no Yakima. But if that's what it takes for me to be able to pay my rent, that's what I have to do." 

In Tacoma, which has the region's fastest-rising rents according to one recent study, studio apartments are typically two or three times his entire monthly income. Johnson is disabled and said he receives less than $700 a month from Social Security.

"All you’re doing is creating homelessness more and more," Johnson said. "All you’re doing is feeding a fire. The fire is going to consume you."

On Oct. 31, the deadline to move out, nine tenants remained in the building. Some had plans to stave off homelessness. Kirk had secured a bed in a hostel for one month.

Others were worse off. Juan Morales, a tenant in his late 60s, planned to sleep in his car. Johnson never made it to Yakima, and said he had no prospects for housing. 

Nor did Kathy Dour, who was homeless before she began sharing a room with another tenant at the Merkle Hotel. She was concerned, because she needed to provide an address to the van service that transported her to dialysis treatments three times a week.

"We don't have a place to go yet," Dour said on move-out day. "We're just standing in the wind right now, just waiting." 

Credit Will James / KNKX
Tenants of the Merkle Hotel have until Oct. 31 to move out

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.