In the loss of the Merkle Hotel, echoes of the history of residential hotels — and the rise of homelessness
This story is the third in a series.
Dean Tsapralis moved into the Merkle Hotel thinking it would be a reprieve from homelessness, and it was — barely. He still remembers his first night there.
“I was sound asleep and woke up feeling itching all over my face, so I flipped on the light switch,” Tsapralis said of that night in 2006. “And to my horror, there were cockroaches running around all over me, all over the room, all over my bedding, all over the floors and walls. And I had never experienced anything like that in my life.”
Tsapralis, in his 50s at the time, spent decades in Tacoma’s music scene, playing drums and composing atmospheric music on specially-made percussion instruments. With a long beard and tie-dye shirts, he performs as Dean the Dream Weaver.
At the Merkle, he had taken refuge in Tacoma’s last residential hotel, where tenants paid less than $400 a month for a kitchenless, hotel-style room.
Life there only got worse. For years, a nightclub downstairs sent pounding music through the floors into the early morning. Next, bedbugs infested the building.
Then, in 2018, developer Eli Moreno bought the building with plans to renovate it and gave tenants 90 days to move out, an event KNKX has chronicled throughout this series. He later extended the deadline by two months.
As miserable as the Merkle was to live in, getting kicked out was somehow worse.
“We really felt like we were helpless and hopeless because there was nowhere to take our stuff and start a new life,” said Tsapralis, who had lived at the Merkle for 12 years at that point. “It was something none of us knew how to deal with.”
Experts say that tension has existed, in some form, throughout the history of residential hotels like the Merkle: a push and pull between concerns about the buildings’ safety and living conditions and the critical role they played in housing markets.
AN UNOFFICIAL SAFETY NET
This tension existed in cities across the U.S. In places like New York’s Bowery and Seattle’s Pioneer Square, once known as “Skid Road,” residential hotels were a fixture of urban landscapes several decades in the 20th century.
They formed an unofficial safety net for itinerant workers in canneries and restaurants, on railroads and farms; immigrants, struggling artists and others who might not otherwise be able to afford a place to live. They generally lived in hotel-style rooms with space for little more than a bed, and without kitchens.
That history is still visible in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, where preservation laws have ensured that the exteriors buildings that were once residential hotels look much as they did in the early 1900s: nondescript brick structures with businesses like tea stores or restaurants downstairs and a few stories of residential rooms above.
“This is one of these building types that people walk by all the time and really don't pay any attention to, their history,” said Marie Wong, a Seattle University professor emerita who has studied the district’s residential hotels. “They look very plain, you know, very utilitarian. And nobody really thinks about how incredibly special these buildings are.”
Blocks populated by buildings like this once stretched through Seattle’s Pioneer Square, downtown and Belltown neighborhoods, Wong said.
But half a century ago, that changed with Seattle’s deadliest fire. Twenty-one people died when the Ozark Hotel downtown went up in flames in 1970.
Seattle faced lawsuits from families, and suddenly, city leaders turned their attention to the residential hotels — how cramped they were, with no sprinklers and few escape routes, Wong said.
City Council members passed what’s called the Ozark Ordinance. Wong said owners of residential hotels got roughly a year to make safety upgrades aimed at preventing another tragedy. But, she said, the improvements cost thousands of dollars, and landlords were charging tenants rents of around $6 a week.
Without financial assistance from the city, upgrading the buildings didn’t make financial sense, Wong said. That prompted many landlords to close residential hotels, keeping businesses open downstairs running but boarding up the rooms above. Others were redeveloped into apartments or condos.
When Seattle officials took stock of how much housing the city lost, they found it far exceeded their estimate of about 1,000 units, Wong said.
“Just south of Yesler Way, where a lot of the hotels were located, they had already lost 5,000 units of housing within three years,” she said.
It wasn’t just Seattle. Wong said, around this same time, some version of this story played out in cities all over the country. People in charge saw residential hotels were unsafe, and then regulated them almost out of existence.
A LINK TO THE HISTORY OF HOMELESSNESS
Those choices rippled through cities.
“Having those close in an increasing number forced people out into literal homelessness,” said Josephine Ensign, who teaches nursing and public health at the University of Washington and wrote a book called “Skid Road” that chronicles the history of homelessness in Seattle.
She said the closures also forced people “to move further out into some of the suburbs where it's a lot more difficult to get services and transportation and things like that.”
As this trend swept over the country in the 1970s and '80s, cities started to see homelessness grow more visible and persistent. It was the beginning of what experts view as the modern era of homelessness, which continues today.
Ensign says the disappearance of residential hotels was one factor. Also: states shutting down psychiatric institutions because of poor treatment of patients at some of them, and, at the federal level, the loss of funding for public housing.
The places in cities where many of the poorest people lived were disappearing, and leaders were doing little to replace them. Poor people improvised new ways to live — including in encampments.
As homelessness has risen to a dominant social and political issue in many West Coast cities, officials have turned to a new strategy during the pandemic: converting hotels into shelter and housing.
Ensign, who wrote a book about the history of homelessness, said she thinks these efforts will be part of an array of solutions — but, she added, people who have worked to address homelessness for a long time find it a little amusing.
“It's interesting to kind of see what we think of as new, innovative ideas, like, ‘Oh, let's do, you know, places where people can have their own rooms,’” Ensign said. “In many cases, basically, they are SROs.”
Single-room occupancy buildings — SROs — are another term for residential hotels. Ensign, as a nurse, cared for tenants of those buildings, first in Richmond, Virginia, and then in Seattle after she moved there in 1994.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said she believes the solution to what befell the Merkle tenants lies in the city’s efforts to build permanent supportive housing: apartments designed to accommodate people leaving homelessness with mental illness, substance use disorders and other challenges.
“We bought a hotel out on Hosmer,” Woodards said, speaking of a project Tacoma is undertaking in partnership with Pierce County and the City of Lakewood. “It's intended, in its first two years, to be a shelter, and then after its first 18 months or two years as a shelter, it's going to turn into permanent supportive housing.”
There are clear parallels with the residential hotels of the past. But Woodards said these new hotel-to-housing conversions must not be like the Merkle.
“You should be able to live in permanent supportive housing and not worry about the bug bites that we heard of, and the filth and the uncleanliness of the place they were living in,” Woodards said. “That's not what I want.”
The Merkle’s new owner, Eli Moreno, declined an interview. In a statement, he said that, when he bought the building, it needed seismic upgrades to make it safe, as well as cleanup of bedbugs, rodents and trash that had piled up in some places.
“In no way is that a complete list of the repairs as it was a huge task to repair decades of neglect by previous owners, which is why the repairs needed for a clean, safe, and healthy living environment couldn’t be completed while the building was occupied,” Moreno said.
“Residents had even stated in ‘Open Letter to Developer Eli Moreno From Merkle Tenants’ that the hotel was ‘an extreme health risk to every single resident,’ and the only way to change the health risks was the course that we had to take,” he added.
After improvements were complete, Moreno rebranded the building as Tacoma Flats, which he markets as a “chic, renovated historic building” with “micro apartments” for “students, urban professionals, millennials, commuters, military personnel and anyone seeking to thrive with the benefits of co-living.”
Tenants pay $799 to $1,040 a month, roughly double what the Merkle tenants paid, for apartments that are between 250 and 300 square feet.
For Tsapralis and other Merkle tenants who were displaced to make way for that change, it was a firsthand lesson in the history of residential hotels. They scoured the city for places to live but found the Merkle was the last building of its kind.
“I made, I don't know, 40, 60 calls to different places to see about vacancies,” Tsapralis said. “And there really wasn't anything available.”
When it came time to move out, Tsapralis was in bed recovering from surgery to remove cancerous tissue from his jaw. As midnight approached, he said, two friends helped him out of the building.
“When the deadline actually came, they literally had to help pick me up and get me down the stairs with the last of my belongings,” he said. “And then they got me down the stairs and out the door with 20 minutes to spare.”
They moved him into an apartment in their basement, where he’s lived ever since. He said he believes, without them, he’d have been homeless.
Now 76, Tsapralis has a quiet, comfortable place where he can work on a kind of legacy project — recordings he wants to leave behind of atmospheric music he creates on specially-made percussion instruments.
“I'll be forever grateful and just so thankful that I was also delivered from this, the mayhem and debilitating circumstances of living at the Merkle Hotel,” he said.
He doesn’t mourn the Merkle. What bothers him, he said, is how it disappeared.
As Tsapralis was moving out, he said, he was putting belongings into a storage unit and ran into one of his neighbors from the Merkle. The man, named Tim, had a sleeping bag and a backpack and walked off to live on the streets.
Either nobody thought in advance about where he and his neighbors would go, Tsapralis said, or nobody cared.