By Erica C. Barnett
The hallways inside the Everspring Inn on Aurora Avenue North are a hive of activity on Friday morning, as dozens of residents shuffle in and out of doorways, loading up trash bags, calling for friends down the hall, and trying to stuff a life’s worth of possessions onto carts and into shabby suitcases. The place smells sour, like sweat and mold, and some of the doors have messages scrawled or taped on the outside: “Hope.” “Happiness.” “Fuck you.” One of the doors has been kicked completely off its hinges; according to residents, it’s been that way for months.
Last month, the Seattle Police Department declared the motel a “chronic nuisance” and ordered its owner, Ryan Kang, to correct the problems, which included drug activity, rapes, and two recent murders—one in the parking garage and one in the motel lobby. On Tuesday, residents say, they received a notice on their doors ordering them to vacate the premises.
“[O]ur agreement with the City of Seattle and the Chief of the Seattle Police Department requires that we remove all guests and persons currently occupying the property… effective immediately,” the notice said. “The Seattle Police Department will be on the premises for a scheduled walkthrough on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 11:00am to help ensure compliance with this requirement.”
The move was a bluff. According to SPD, there is no agreement between Kang and the department. Nor did police officers do a “walkthrough” on Thursday; although a couple of officers did show up, residents and case managers who were present say they never got out of their car.
José Carrillo, who has lived at the Everspring Inn for four years, said he didn’t understand how Kang had the right to kick everyone out without notice. “The notice just said we have to leave because there’s been some shootings and murders. They’re blaming all 25 people who live here for the shooting. I was as scared as anyone when that happened.” Carrillo, who buys cars at auction, fixes them up, and sells them, said he had just gone upstairs to his room when a woman living in the motel was shot in the garage. “That’s when it started feeling unsafe,” he said.
Even so, residents say, it’s better than being on the streets. “Anything is better than being homeless,” said Olivia Lee. Her girlfriend, Nevaeh Love, is the sister of the woman whose killing Carrillo almost witnessed. The two women lived in a single room with another resident, Curtis Coleman; now, Lee said, they would have to go back to living in their car. “They didn’t offer us any resources, nothing. They just told us we had to be out that day,” Lee said. “It should have been done the legal way.”
Love, who is seven months pregnant, said she was in the hospital until last week because of a lung infection she believes was caused by black mold at the property. Her sister was one of the two people who were shot at the motel.
“They’re sitting on their high horse right now,” Love said. “Well, karma’s a bitch, and they’re going to be in this situation one day, only it will be tenfold.”
Kang was in front of the motel on Friday morning, sweeping up glass and trash as two private bodyguards looked on from a few feet away. He pointed to paint that a resident had poured in the driveway. “This is what I’m dealing with,” he said. He said emptying the motel of tenants was the first step toward addressing the problems identified by SPD. “I believe in second chances but the most important thing for me is public safety,” Kang continued. “We gave them proper notice. I have to get into an agreement [with the city] and this is part of doing that.”
In ordinary times, a mass eviction like the one at the Everspring Inn would require due process, including prior notice of up to 90 days and tenant relocation assistance, depending on the reason for the eviction. Even individual evictions for cause, such as failure to pay rent after a three-day notice to pay or vacate, would have to be filed in King County Superior Court, where the tenants would have the right to challenge their evictions.
During the pandemic, however, there are additional protections against eviction, including both a citywide and statewide ban on most evictions. The statewide ban applies at motels that serve as long-term residences, like the Everspring. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan extended Seattle’s eviction moratorium to the end of the year.
Landlords are still allowed to file eviction lawsuits against individual tenants in extreme circumstances, but that isn’t what happened in this case, either. “There’s nothing in the mayor’s or the governor’s proclamation that says a public nuisance is a just cause for [mass] evictions,” Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, said. “At the very least, he would have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against each individual person.”
In theory, Witter said, the tenants could file an injunction allowing them to stay at the motel for now, or seek redress from the state attorney general, who enforces the statewide eviction ban. (The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond Friday to a question about the legality of the evictions). “It basically sounds like an unlawful eviction,” Witter said. But, he added, “it’s going to be a lot more complicated to help them if they all leave.”
Residents said Kang didn’t give them much of a choice. Last week, residents said, two armed security guards started hanging around in the parking lot and attempting to enter people’s rooms. (When I was inside the motel, the security guards were wandering up and down the hallways sticking their heads into open doors.)
On Thursday, multiple residents said, Kang cut off the’ hot water to all the rooms, and had several tenants’ cars towed, taking away their last significant possession and a potential source of shelter. “Those that have a car, and were going to leave, were probably going to sleep in their cars,” said Kim Harrell, an outreach worker with REACH who was at the motel until 11:00 Thursday night. “What is it hurting him to let the car sit here for one night?”
For some, the final straw came around 1:00 on Friday morning, when the security guards locked the gate surrounding the motel and refused to let anybody in or out. One tenant, Bruce Red, said he felt like he was “back in prison again.”
“[The security guards] locked the gate, and then one of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” he said. “I told him I didn’t need him to be on my ass. I’m not acting out of character. I’ve been incarcerated eight times and you’re a [corrections officer] coming into my room.” Harrell said negotiated with the guards for 45 minutes to allow the children of another resident to come inside the gate, “and then they didn’t want to anymore.”
“Their dad had to come out and talk to them,” Carillo, the four-year resident, said. “It was a messed-up situation.”
Both Red and Coleman said they worked for Kang, making ten dollars an hour—nearly six dollars less than Seattle minimum wage—to manage the front desk and defuse dangerous situations when they arose. Coleman said the work was dangerous and hard. “You just have to deal with everything: People drunk, high, coming with knives and bats.
“I was working 12- to 15-hour shifts for [Kang],” Coleman said. “For him to just push everyone out now—it’s not right. They’re messing up all my plans.”
By Friday afternoon, the mood had turned to resignation, as tenants milled around waiting to talk to one of just three case managers on the scene—Harrell, from REACH, Lisa Etter-Carlson, from the Aurora Commons, and Christine Illan, from the city’s Navigation Team.
Harrell said the only options outreach workers offer the dozens of people being displaced on Friday were a handful of spots in tiny house villages and six beds in basic congregate shelters—the least desirable type of shelter in general, and a particularly inappropriate option for people who are currently housed, for whom sleeping in a shelter means abandoning their possessions and moving several rungs down the housing ladder.
“I can offer them shelter, but for the people living here, that is unreasonable and unrealistic,” Harrell said. “A lot of people aren’t going to move from their homes into shelter.”
A spokesperson for the city’s Human Services Department said the Navigation Team ultimately made nine referrals into tiny houses and said that a few people had been offered spots at other motels. One elderly tenant who is deaf and mute was allowed to stay at the Everspring temporarily while case managers find him a place to live.
Harrell said the conditions at the Everspring were deplorable, but that the alternative—unsheltered homelessness—is even worse. “Do I believe this place should be shut down for the slave labor that it runs on? Oh, yes,” she said,. “It should have been done a long time ago. But he’s not offering them anything. He doesn’t care. He used this population for many years, and when the shit hit the fan, he pushed them all out.”
I asked Red, who was planning to look for a room in another motel, how recently he’d been homeless. “This is homeless!” he responded. Gesturing toward Kang and the two security guards, who were standing a few feet away, he added, “If you really want everyone out, if you’re paying these two guys to sit here all day, forcing everyone to leave, lying, and mistreating people, why don’t you pay us to leave?”