Tacoma’s Merkle Hotel was ‘an unofficial safety net’ for tenants. Then it was taken away

Prior to October 31, 2018, the Merkle Hotel in Tacoma was home to renters who couldn’t afford too much. That is, until a developer decided it was time to cater to the audience who could pay more and force the ones who couldn’t.

The hotel wasn’t perfect, far from it actually, but it was one of the few places its residents could relate to.

KNKX Special Projects reporter Will James found 12 of these people three years later.

The consequences of their eviction, detailed in a three-part investigation, are a grim reminder of what can happen when a community loses a single affordable housing option.

“Even when housing loss is not the direct cause of someone’s death, research shows that it affects people’s health,” James told Angela King of KUOW. “And that’s what a lot of these people were dealing with. When they were forced to leave the Merkel Hotel, they were already in poor health.”

Now, at least five of them have died.

Cathy Dor of the overthrown residents. She was one of the few who stayed in the building on October 31, 2018 – the deadline by which residents had to move out.

She was nervous because she went to dialysis treatments three times a week and needed an address for the bus services she relied on to get her there.

“We’re standing in the wind right now, just waiting,” Dorr, 63, told James in 2018.

She died less than a year later; He told her brother James that she was starting to miss her dialysis appointments.

Predicting how the wrong displacement of tenants might go, community organizations tried to help.

James says the nonprofit Holistic Life Resources has spent more than $15,000 trying to get 14 renters into new homes; The money went toward rent, transportation costs, and transit permits during the research.

But those efforts were largely unsuccessful, not because of a lack of trying but because of a lack of options.

The Merkle was a “remnant” of an old system in which apartment hotels served as “casual safety nets” for people who made little or no money each month.

“In many ways, cities like Seattle and Tacoma allowed hotels to disappear as a form of housing,” James says, referring to a time when more hotels were available. “Now, they’re putting hotels back into residences and kind of framing it as an innovative response while, really, the poor improvised it as a means of survival decades ago.”

What happened to the Merkle is typical of a regional struggle with chronic displacement – a conflict that has had disastrous consequences.

“There were places where the poorest people in our area, no matter what problems they had, could find a place to live,” James says. “The story of homelessness in our region is, in part, the story of those places disappearing and people having to devise new ways of surviving, such as camps.”

You can find KNKX Special Projects Reporter Will James’ series at the Merkle here.

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