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Extra time, money weren’t enough in a city that left Merkle tenants behind

A group of people stand and sit on a sidewalk. They hold signs that read "Housing Justice Now."
Amy Tower
/
Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee
Al Bari, center, speaks at a 2018 demonstration outside Tacoma City Hall in support of Merkle Hotel tenants. From left: Merkle tenants Leonard Johnson, Brandon Lee, Alfred Kirk and Juan Morales.

This story is the second in a series. You can hear and read the first part here.

When Al Bari thinks about the years he lived at the Merkle Hotel, he thinks about a body being dragged down the stairs. He says one of his neighbors died in an apartment years ago, and emergency workers struggled to carry him.

“His body wasn't handled with care,” said Bari, now 56. “I can remember the pain that I felt in my chest to see a body just dragged inside of a bag.”

To Bari, that image contributed to a feeling he had that people saw residents of the building as disposable. The Merkle was home to some of Tacoma’s poorest residents, who dealt with bedbugs, mice, and broken windows that went unrepaired for years. Some described the conditions as a step above living on the streets.

“A lot of things that happened at the Merkle you try to forget because it's painful,” Bari said.

Bari was homeless, living in his truck, before he found the Merkle. There, he paid less than $400 a month for a kitchenless, one-room apartment while he worked for a sewer repair company.

A closeup photo of a man with a dark mustache. He wears a dark-colored T-shirt and a New York Yankees baseball cap.
Parker Miles Blohm
/
KNKX
Al Bari played a leading role in rallying tenants of the Merkle Hotel as they fought displacement from their building in 2018.

When word came in 2018 that a developer had bought the building and was forcing everyone to move out to make way for renovations, Bari saw it as another sign the city didn’t care about the people there. The developer, Eli Moreno, planned to transform the Merkle’s units into “micro apartments” for tenants who could pay more.

In the weeks that followed, Bari played a role in rallying his neighbors and the public to win concessions from Moreno and resources from the city. But, despite those victories, half of the 12 Merkle tenants KNKX tracked down spent time homeless after leaving the building and nearly half died over the past three years.

The surviving tenants and their advocates say those outcomes point to a gaping mismatch between the help that was available to people facing homelessness and the realities of Tacoma’s modern housing market.

'I'M JUST SAYING I NEED HELP'

The fight to save the Merkle tenants from homelessness spilled into public view in August of 2018, just about two weeks before they were initially supposed to move out of the building.

Bari and his neighbors spoke at a Tacoma City Council meeting.

“How many of you all ever been homeless?” Bari asked the council members seated in front of him. “When I came to the Merkle Hotel, I was homeless. I was sleeping in my truck. And the Merkle Hotel offered an opportunity for me to have a roof over my head, and I’ve been there for four years. And now I’m going to be faced with that same situation, same with these people right here.”

A handful of Bari’s neighbors were sitting behind him, in the audience. Before all this, the tenants weren’t close, but crisis brought some of them together. Bari, who was in his fifties, got to know one of his youngest neighbors, if not the youngest: Brandon Lee, who was in his thirties. Lee addressed the council after Bari.

“Some people have found new places and stuff,” Lee said at the meeting. “But the rest of the people haven’t — the people who are on fixed incomes, like me. And I came off the streets. And I’m just saying I need help.”

Lee had severe epilepsy and worried about how he would survive if he became homeless again, people who helped him said. Still, he took a leading role in rallying his neighbors to fight displacement.

Seven people gather under a white pop-up tent in a courtyard. A sign that says "Motel Moreno" hangs from the tent.
Amy Tower
/
Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee
Brandon Lee, left, with supporters at a 2018 demonstration outside Tacoma City Hall.

“Brandon was quietly persistent, and I think that made him very powerful,” said Amy Tower, who in 2018 was an organizer for the Tenants Union of Washington. “Also, a lot of people trusted him. They knew he was a big player in the building. He was there a lot, and so he knew a lot of his neighbors.”

Efforts by Lee, Bari and others helped draw attention to the plight of the Merkle tenants. They participated in press conferences, sent a letter to their landlord demanding more time to move and helped stage demonstrations outside City Hall.

City Council members redirected money to help the tenants find housing. The nonprofit Comprehensive Life Resources spent more than $15,000 in city funds over several weeks helping 14 tenants with rent, moving costs, and transit passes as they scrambled to find new homes.

Under pressure, the Merkle’s new landlord, Moreno, extended the move-out deadline first to the end of September, then to the end of October. He also agreed to give each tenant 500 dollars to relocate and waived the last month’s rent.

Moreno declined to be interviewed but, in a statement, pointed out the steps he took above.

Despite these efforts, tenants’ hopes waned as the days before the move-out deadline ticked away.

Bari, at the same time he was advocating for himself and his neighbors, was preparing to return to homelessness.

“I really felt by us being evicted from there that I was going to be in a homeless shelter or put my stuff inside of storage and sleep on the street, because a lot of the rent were out of my reach,” Bari said.

Emails from that time show nonprofit workers and city officials scrambling to help Merkle tenants overcome logistical obstacles. None of the tenants had leases at the Merkle so, to prospective landlords, it looked like they had spotty records of renting apartments.

In a couple of cases, Tacoma’s mayor, Victoria Woodards, reached out to landlords to vouch for tenants.

“The fact that I had to intervene perplexes me at some point,” Woodwards said in an interview, “because how many mayors would take the time, or not even take the time — how many mayors have the time to intervene for individuals like this? And it shouldn’t come to that.”

One of the tenants she tried to help was Lee. Emails between city officials say one property manager turned him down because of his epilepsy; Lee lived alone, and the property manager wanted someone on the lease with him.

But tenants and their advocates say one obstacle dwarfed all the others: For all the help the tenants got relocating, Tacoma had become a city where there was nowhere for them to relocate.

'THERE JUST ISN'T ANY HOUSING'

Tacoma had among the fastest rising rents in the country in 2018. Many of the Merkle tenants lived on disability payments of about $750 dollars a month. Average rents in central Tacoma, for example, had risen to more than double that amount.

“There was nowhere for them to go,” said Nathan Blackmer, who worked for Comprehensive Life Resources in 2018. “They needed a place that you could pay 400 bucks a month for and live in and live well, and it just does not exist.”

Blackmer said he and his colleagues searched as far as Moscow, Idaho, for apartments within the tenants' budgets.

When city officials asked Blackmer to report on the obstacles that stymied efforts to house the Merkle tenants, the first item on his list was the mismatch between the tenants’ incomes and the cost of rent.

“Apartments that aren’t subsidized are clearly out of reach to people living on $750 a month,” Blackmer wrote. Even rooms in shared houses cost, on average, about $600 a month, he added, meaning tenants would have only $150 left after paying rent.

“How do you find housing for somebody who only has $750 dollars? It's impossible,” said Tower, the tenant advocate. “That's the thing. It's like, it's not about getting a housing coordinator. There just isn't any housing.”

The help tenants were receiving was intended to help them navigate the housing market. But it was a market that had soared far out of their reach. Tenants and their advocates said the extra time, one-time payments, and logistical help couldn’t overcome that fundamental fact.

To avoid homelessness, some tenants moved into rooms in shared houses. Lee was one of those. But emails show conditions in the house stressed him out, and his neurologist was worried about his health declining, due to his epilepsy. Nonprofit workers later found him his own apartment, where he felt safer.

At that time, Tower, the tenant advocate, was planning to go to law school. But she said the struggles Lee and the other Merkle tenants faced changed her life plans. She started to think the central problem the tenants were up against wasn’t legal in nature, but broader — such as a lack of housing.

“I think that was the point where I was like, I don't see the solution to this being fought in the courts at all,” Tower said. “Like there's nothing illegal about this. But it should be.”

Several of the Merkle tenants who found homes said the key was simply luck. Shortly before the move-out deadline, Bari attended a workshop for educating tenants about their rights. A landlord heard him speak about the plight of the Merkle tenants and offered him a studio apartment on the spot. Bari has lived there ever since.

“I’ve got a kitchen,” Bari said. “You know, it’s just warmth. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

The Merkle tenants who grew closer during the crisis of 2018 drifted apart after they were forced out.

It wasn’t until KNKX told Bari what happened to some of his former neighbors that he learned some had died — and that Lee was among them.

“Oh, my God,” Bari said and started to cry.

“He was the one person out of all this that I was really concerned and really worried about,” Bari said. “And I always wondered what happened to him. The most nicest person that anybody could ever meet. He's like a beacon of light.”

Lee was found dead in his apartment 20 months after leaving the Merkle, at age 36. The cause was his epilepsy.

News of Lee’s death caused Bari to reflect on all his former neighbors who died or faced homelessness after leaving the Merkle.

“It's just devastating,” he said. “It didn't have to be that way. What would have been nice is if they already had property already set up for us to even move to.”

When the Merkle tenants spoke before the City Council in 2018, Tacoma’s leaders were already contemplating a new set of housing regulations meant to support tenants facing displacement. The challenges facing the Merkle tenants added urgency to that effort, helping highlight how renter protections in Tacoma lagged behind those in Seattle.

The law passed in November of 2018, weeks after most of the Merkle tenants left the building and some entered homelessness. Among other things, it required that landlords start giving 120 days’ notice to tenants who are going to be forced out by a renovation, demolition or change of use, and it set up a relocation assistance fund that would pay up to $1,000 for qualifying tenants facing displacement. Landlords were required to start providing additional relocation help, up to $1,000 per qualifying tenant.

In other words, more time and money for renters to search for housing.

PART ONE: A developer forced them out of their building. Three years later, nearly half are dead.

PART THREE: In the loss of the Merkle Hotel, echoes of the history of residential hotels — and the rise of homelessness

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