By Erica C. Barnett
Last week, five days after the owner of a dilapidated Aurora Avenue motel, the Everspring Inn, left notices on tenants’ doors telling them they had to vacate their rooms immediately, the Seattle Police Department signed off on a “nuisance property” abatement agreement that the owner, Ryan Kang, used as justification after the fact for displacing his tenants, some of whom had lived at the motel for years.
The papers he taped on tenants’ doors were not official eviction notices, nor, attorneys for the tenants say, were they legal; even if Kang and SPD had both signed an abatement agreement when he began forcing his tenants out, he would have had to provide them with notice, relocation assistance, and sufficient time to find new places to live. Nothing in the law allows a landlord, even one who runs a dangerous or substandard property, to simply tell his tenants to get out.
Tenant advocates, and many of the tenants themselves, agree that the Everspring is not a good place to live. Black mold is visible in many of the units, and water sometimes drips from the ceilings. Fights are common. But attorneys for the Public Defender Association, which is representing some of the tenants, say even a justified nuisance agreement can’t provide legal cover for kicking tenants out without proper notice or restitution, and they argue that SPD Police Chief Carmen Best made a serious error of judgment when she signed an agreement after several local media outlets, including this site, reported that Kang was illegally evicting tenants, towing their cars, and shutting off their hot water in the middle of a pandemic.
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Lisa Etter Carlson, co-founder and director of women’s health initiatives at the Aurora Commons, a nonprofit that helps sex workers and people experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood, said she was surprised when media coverage didn’t jostle the city of Seattle into action. “I kind of assumed that surely, with all the press, with the absurdity and inhumanity of turning these precious people out during a pandemic, during an eviction moratorium, surely someone out there was doing something,” she said. “And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.”
Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says SDCI is reviewing 16 complaints from Everspring residents—complaints that those residents could use as a defense against a formal eviction proceeding. At that point, the city would also begin issuing notices to the property owner, Kang, for violating the city’s just-cause eviction ordinance. Since the evictions have all been de facto and informal, it’s hard to see how this option is meaningful to the current and former tenants.
And, as Etter Carlson noted, no one from the city has showed up to inspect the site or stop the evictions from happening. For the past week and a half, the only city employees who’ve been consistently on site are members of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, bearing offers of shelter—a significant step down from even a crappy motel room, and one that many tenants aren’t willing to consider.
“It’s really challenging when people have had their own apartment for years to then, just all of a sudden, pick up and move to a tiny house or a shelter situation,” Etter Carlson said. “It’s not dignifying.”
Most of the people at the Everspring had nowhere to go; and so, many of them are still there. As of last weekend, nearly a dozen rooms in the Everspring were still occupied, with plywood sheets sitting just outside their doors as a reminder that if they leave their rooms, they will be considered unoccupied, and the security guards will board up their doors with all their possessions inside. As a result, tenants said, they have taken to sitting in each others’ rooms when one of them leaves so that their doors don’t get boarded up while they’re gone.
Stevens, from SDCI, says the department got assurances that Kang was only boarding up “unoccupied” rooms. He added that the city has no authority to order a property owner to open up rooms that are boarded up if no one is living there.
Tenants who were still living at the Everspring over the past weekend said that after he ordered them to leave, Kang hired security guards who roamed the motel’s hallways and locked the newly installed gate, preventing tenants from coming and going at will. “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,” tenant Bruce Red recalled. Another tenant, Stephanie Lewis, said one of the guards claimed to be a US marshal, and was “walking around, all geared up with a Taser gun and a bunch of different kinds of mace and pepper spray.”
Kimberly Harrell, a case worker with REACH, confirmed that one security guard was representing himself as a US marshal, and said, “The behavior of the security there is ridiculous. It’s almost like he’s taunting them or trying to provoke them.” She showed me a text message exchange between that security guard and one of the tenants. “Don’t say I didn’t warn no body,” the message said. The tenant asked him what he meant, and he responded, “U know what I mean. I’ll say this: I will be wearing police patches tonight.”
“I kind of assumed that surely someone out there was doing something. And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.” —Lisa Etter Carlson, Aurora Commons
Lewis, who worked 12-hour days at the front desk for $10 an hour, said that Kang ordered everyone to move their cars from the motel garage or he would have them towed. As a result, “we had to take our car out of the garage and park it on the street.” If they get kicked out, they’ll need to use that car as shelter.
The Public Defender Association sent a letter last Thursday to Kang’s attorney, E. Chan Lee, demanding that Kang stop removing tenants from his property, turn their utilities back on, and allow people whose rooms were boarded up to get back into those rooms and retrieve their property.
They also wrote to Best and soon-to-be-acting police chief Adrian Diaz directly, expressing outrage that the department signed the order without telling them, after the PDA contacted the department two weeks ago to see if any of the people Kang was kicking out might be eligible for the Co-LEAD program. That program provides motel rooms and case management for people experiencing homelessness who are involved in low-level criminal activity—a description that fits many of the Everspring’s residents.
Their letter to SPD reads, in part:
Accepting for the sake of argument that a serious nuisance situation existed at the Everspring, you must know that (1) people not responsible for those conditions will be forced out onto the street and (2) those responsible for the nuisance conditions will not cease their problematic activity just because they lose their lodging. It is inconceivable, and inexcusable, for you not to have initiated planning with the community partners who could work with this population, and the various city agencies that can provide relocation assistance and homelessness prevention, before you took this action. The city’s departments appear to be working at cross purposes, with zero coordination, and at odds with stated city policies about sheltering/lodging high barrier individuals, finding space and avoiding unnecessary evictions to the street.
Tenants cannot be evicted because of criminal activity that happens on a property unless they were directly involved. A spokeswoman for SPD said the police department was not involved in or aware of the evictions when they began on August 13, and characterized them as requests to tenants that they “voluntarily leave.”
Prachi Dave, the PDA’s legal director, said that while the nuisance order cites “various kinds of criminal activity, there’s no allegation that the people are being removed from their homes right now have engaged in any kind of criminal activity. Having them bear the ramifications of that seems fundamentally unfair.”
Moreover, Dave continued, the police knew that Kang was already evicting tenants illegally when they signed the agreement with him—an agreement he is now using to justify the evictions that took place before it was signed. In his letter responding to the PDA, Lee, Kang’s attorney, said his client was “in fact required to remove all those residing at the property pursuant to our agreement with the Seattle Police Department.” The agreement does note that this should be the ultimate outcome, but it does not give Kang permission to simply tell everyone to leave without notice, due process, or relocation assistance. And, again, it was signed several days after notices went up on tenants’ doors and tenants were told they had to be out right away.
“The fact that SPD entered into this agreement, knowing this was going to be the outcome, and when that outcome was already already unfolding at the time they entered this agreement, is incredibly problematic,” Dave said.
Tenants say that in addition to boarding up rooms with tenants’ property inside, Kang offered some tenants a mere $100, in cash, to leave. Some have taken the money. One such tenant, Eric Border, said he sometimes worked for Kang under the table, “as muscle.” He said he took the money and left because he didn’t feel he had a choice. “He boarded up my door and told me to leave,” he said.
When I talked to Border by phone on Sunday, he said he was walking around, scared and with nowhere to go. He had been living at the Everspring for about three years. “I’m older now and I need a place to stay,” he said. “I have nowhere to take a bath. I just want a place to lay down and wake up so I can be normal.”
Harrell, with REACH, said she was especially appalled to learn, from a story in the Seattle Times, that Kang had received at least $164,000 in “rapid rehousing” assistance from the city of Seattle in 2018, making him the single largest beneficiary of the program. Rapid rehousing is supposed to provide temporary assistance to get people into safe, stable housing—typically in market-rate apartments—until they can pay the full rent themselves. Rent for a room at the Everspring ranged from $1,800 to $2,400 a month, and it was far from safe or stable.
“If the city is paying for something like that, then how come no one checked to make sure things were running properly?” Harrell said. “It’s not fair that he got all this money and didn’t run it the way it should have been run.”
The groups that are trying to help the Evergreen’s tenants, including REACH, the Aurora Commons, and the PDA, say they aren’t asking for anything extraordinary—just some relocation assistance and time to find the tenants a new place to stay and get them connected with case management and other support. The tenants, too, say that’s what they want.
“I hope I can wake up tomorrow and they’ll say, ‘Here’s your relocation money,'” Lewis said. “Basically, all we want is to be compensated, to be relocated so we can go on with our lives.”