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For Last Residents, Closing Of The Merkle Hotel Means Homelessness

To some, the Merkle Hotel was a symbol of urban blight. It's seen here in 2018, with plywood covering broken windows.
Will James
The last of the Merkle Hotel's residents were turned out on October 31.


The Merkle Hotel is a vestige — one of the last residential hotels in Western Washington geared toward housing low-income people. These hotels were once commonplace in this region, particularly in Seattle and Tacoma, but also in many other towns with sizable populations of transient and/or immigrant workers.


“What I remember from the first time I walked in was the ceiling fan in the lobby, and the dust being heaped so high on top of the ceiling fan that it was spilling off,” said KNKX’s Will James. “And that gives you a sense of what kind of building this is. It is, for lack of a better term, a flophouse.”

Will joined Sound Effect’s Gabriel Spitzer to talk about the fate of the Merkle Hotel. When he first visited the Merkle, it was down to about 15 residents. The hotel, situated in an out-of-the-way part of Tacoma, has been bought by a developer and is being rehabbed to create student housing. All the remaining residents were told they would have to leave, and it had been gradually emptying out for weeks.

When Will returned on move-out day, nine residents remained. Will followed up once again after that.

“I checked in with their case worker a little while ago. And seven of them at this point are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness.”

Will got to know one long-time resident named Leonard who, when they first met, seemed to be overflowing with enterprise.

“He was just full of hope and plans. He had all these ideas. He was going to get on a Greyhound bus and go to Yakima, and find a place where he could live 150 miles away, where rents are cheaper that he could afford. And he wasn’t happy about it because he didn’t know anything about Yakima, but he was like, 'If this is what I have to do to survive, this is what I’m going to do,'” Will recalled.

But by deadline day, Will says Leonard seemed like a different guy: quiet, uncertain and deflated.

“To watch him go from this state of hope and planning and strategizing to the reality of his situation sinking in was really striking.”

Losing the residential hotels leaves a hole in the safety net for a slice of the low-income population -- a gap between “affordable” or “workforce” housing, which is often out of reach for people who are struggling, and homeless shelters.

“The Merkle Hotel is, as far as I know, the last of those buildings in Tacoma -- the last of that unofficial safety net that was the line between being housed and being homeless for a lot of people.”


Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.
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.