“What’s the alternative?” said Olivia Lee, who’s stayed there for seven months. “It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but at least I have a roof over my head.”
Seattle police recently declared the building a public nuisance, condemning it to close. There had been two shootings there this summer and neighbors complained of crime nearby. Fencing wraps the Aurora Avenue North motel now and its owner and manager, Ryan Kang, paced outside late last week.
For residents, there was little notice of their impending eviction — some said a week, others just a day. They wondered why this was allowed when evictions had been paused across the state. And because the Everspring is a private motel, the city’s mechanisms for preventing homelessness were not immediately engaged when the building was condemned. The residents of motels like the Everspring exist on the housing spectrum somewhere between living in your car or on the street and having a lease and a dependable place to live.
As they emptied their rooms Friday afternoon, most residents of the Everspring were still unsure where they’d spend the night.
“A lot of people are going to be sleeping in their cars,” said Nevaeh Love, Lee’s girlfriend.
In a tight housing market like Seattle’s, the city’s motels, many along Aurora, have acted as a stopgap before the streets. With few permanent housing options, service providers often help people find a room by way of a voucher. At the same time, they also serve as a more organic last resort for people without the right credit or savings, or with a criminal history.
Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, a Seattle nonprofit focused on homelessness and substance abuse, said motels have become what single-room occupancies or flophouses were before them. They may be in poor condition or even unsafe, but that only illustrates the lack of other options for the people who stay there.
“It’s the extreme nature of how terrible things are outside and the level of desperation that people feel that this place provides them more safety than other places would,” said Gale.
Asked what the Everspring represents, despite everything, Love answered: “stability.”
Tenants in motels live in a gray area — not homeless by federal standards, but not fully housed either. Permanent residents of hotels or motels are “generally not covered” under the Washington law governing tenant rights. However, anyone who stays in a motel for more than 30 days is considered a tenant, which means housing laws apply to their place of residence.
The Everspring was condemned in late July, but until Thursday, no alerts had been sent to the city’s Human Services Department and no engagement from service providers had taken place. It was only because workers with the Aurora Commons, a resource center for sex workers and people struggling with homelessness in the North Seattle neighborhood, noticed the signs around the building that anyone arrived Friday to help at all.
“There were no social services in place to come and assist,” said Lisa Etter-Carlson, co-founder of the Aurora Commons.
A spokesperson for Seattle Police said the department does not schedule the Navigation Team — a team of police and outreach workers — the Human Services Department does.
Will Lemke, spokesperson for the Human Services Department, said they did not learn of the hotel’s closure until late last week, when the Aurora Commons let them know.
“This is a unique situation,” he said in an email. “The city does not usually send service providers or the Navigation Team to a building that is being closed down.”
Etter-Carlson looped in outreach workers from the city’s Navigation Team and engaged case managers from the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to help find somewhere for people to live.
“The gaping holes of communication is definitely the theme that just continues to happen that impacts these precious people,” she said.
Seattle is full of reminders of just how scarce housing can be — for everyone, but in particular low-income people. The choice facing residents of the Everspring Inn until its condemnation — between an unsafe building and living in a car — puts it in stark clarity.
“The building was pretty fucked up,” said Cristen Calmes, who’d lived there for about a year. “But it was ours.”
“I think it’s an indictment for our community that people are in such desperate straits that they’d stay somewhere in such terrible conditions and feel safer or be safer than any other option,” said Gale.
Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University’s School of Law, said it’s a reflection of the city’s failures to create more low-income housing. The city announced last week it was investing in 600 new supportive housing units for people struggling with homelessness, which Rankin celebrated, but said was a drop in the bucket.
“The trend of cities like Seattle is to ignore the need for low-income housing and, especially, housing that requires some sort of support,” said Rankin. “There’s a dearth of extremely low-income housing. What happens when people are pushed to the margins? That margin that you’re talking about isn’t really top of mind.”
The short notice for residents also laid bare the scramble outreach workers must undertake to find people somewhere to stay. Shelter capacity is constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic and “the opportunities to move into housing are down to a trickle,” said Gale.
“There’s no resources,” said Kimberly Harrell, an outreach worker with REACH. “We needed help and we still need help and there’s not a lot of things available. I work for a great organization, but we need housing more than shelter.”
Complicating matters is that the city’s system for finding open beds has been confused by the COVID-19 pandemic; Lemke said new shelter openings to increase social distancing have made it difficult to capture what’s actually open. Throughout the morning at Everspring, a city employee held a list showing just two openings in tiny houses. But after making calls, it turned out there were actually nine.
There is sometimes shelter space available. But during a pandemic, people are hesitant to crowd inside. “I’d rather sleep on the street by myself than in a room full of people I don’t know,” said Calmes.
Kang, the owner of Everspring, said he was trying to do the right thing. “While we are not unsympathetic to those impacted by the closure, please understand that it is a necessary first step to promote safety for everyone involved,” he said in a prepared statement he handed out at the motel.
The Everspring’s closure was not the result of COVID-19. But it comes at a time when money is tighter and jobs fewer. Lee worked for a resort, doing bookings. There are few of those now and she was laid off. With the expiration of the extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit from the federal government, losing her room — no matter the condition — has her frightened.
Wendy Shark, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, said the city is "monitoring the situation at the Everspring Inn," as well as the efforts to rehouse its residents. Whether or not each resident was technically a "tenant" is determined on a "case-by-case analysis," she said. If a resident has stayed in a hotel or motel for more than 30 days, that unit is regulated under the city's housing codes for rental properties, she said.
Outreach workers struggled to tally the exact number of people at Everspring, but Etter-Carlson guessed it was around 50. In total, nine people were referred to tiny homes and a few others to different motels.
Bruce Red, who lived and worked at the Everspring, said it’s “probably about right” that the motel was a nuisance. “But you can’t just throw people out on their head. With as many millionaires and billionaires living in Seattle,” he said, “how the hell do you have this problem?”