Matt Driscoll

Gentrification is complicated, but residents of shabby Tacoma hotel simply want a place to live

Dozens to be evicted from Tacoma’s Merkle Hotel

Al Bari and dozens of others are about to be evicted from the Merkle Hotel, which has functioned as an extremely low-rent apartment building in downtown Tacoma.
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Al Bari and dozens of others are about to be evicted from the Merkle Hotel, which has functioned as an extremely low-rent apartment building in downtown Tacoma.

What does the slow, steady, complicated plod of gentrification look like in Tacoma?

It looks like what’s happening to 53-year-old Al Bari, who has lived at the Hotel Merkle on Pacific Avenue for the last four years.

In April, the 40-unit hotel was sold to developers planning to renovate the building and turn it into “micro units” for University of Washington Tacoma students.

It’s an example of what happens when what many view as inevitable progress collides with people’s lives.

And, at its most basic, it means current residents like Bari have to find a new place to call home.

“I put it in God’s hands,” Bari says when asked what he’s going to do, and more specifically, where he’s going to go. “I just have to let Him guide me. Hopefully, something will come through.”

Bari is one of more than a dozen residents of the Merkle running low on options and low on time, according to Amy Tower with the Tenants Union of Washington.

“It’s really disturbing that we’re living in a society where a developer and a capitalist can purchase a property with no regard for the outcome of dozens of peoples’ lives, and profit off of it — essentially putting people out on the street — and then be celebrated for the profit or the revitalization,” Tower says.

“Development can be good, and revitalization can be good,but when it’s only benefiting the few, and the ones that can afford it, that’s a tragedy.”

At the Merkle, residents like Bari — who first learned of the impending renovation back in May — have until the end of September to find a new place to live. Some have lived at the building for more than a decade

Eli Moreno is the owner of Premier Residential, the development company that purchased the Hotel Merkle earlier this year for just over $1 million. He says he’s now given residents more than 90 days notice of his plans, and that he’s done everything in his power to help people relocate as smoothly as possible, including providing a list of resources that identifies “surrounding areas with comparable rental housing to the Merkle.”

Moreno also says he’s also keenly aware of Tacoma’s affordability crisis, and he’s sympathetic to the upheaval his renovation plans have caused.

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The Merkle Hotel has functioned as an extremely low-rent apartment building in downtown Tacoma. August 17, 2018 Peter Haley

“It’s definitely a major problem,” Moreno says of the city’s growing lack of affordable housing. “The affordability problem that we have in the city, it should be a concern for all of us.

He argues the planned “micro units” for UWT students can be part of the solution.

Asked whether he’s done everything he can to help mitigate the impact of the Merkle renovation to current residents, Moreno says “absolutely.”

Cut through the rhetoric on both sides, and residents like Bari — who are on the front line of gentrification and all its implications — say they feel nearly helpless.

At the Merkle, Bari says he pays $395 a month for a room with a refrigerator and a microwave oven. A recent bedbug infestation forced him to buy a new bed, he says. He’s kept the plastic cover on it to help keep the insects at bay.

“You wake in the morning like you have chickenpox,” Barisays of the ordeal.

Still, Bari says he considers his room at the Merkel “a blessing.” Before landing at the hotel, he’d been homeless, living in his truck.

When Bari learned he’d be forced to leave the Merkle, he says he was “devastated.” The chances that he’ll find a similarly affordable housing option are slim to none, he says.

“For one, I didn’t know where I was going to live, what was going to transpire, because I was just new on my job and paying child support, and I have a truck that’s not running,” Bari says of his reaction upon hearing the news.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be in the homeless shelter or just sleeping in my truck again.”

All of this is what makes Tacoma’s gentrification and affordable housing debate so murky. By most accounts, the living conditions at the Hotel Merkle over the decades were nothing short of atrocious.

On the other hand, the Merkle served as a last resort for many, and the loss of it means there’s one less place for people to turn.

Mark Morzol is managing attorney at the Tacoma-Pierce County Housing Justice Project. Morzol says what’s transpiring at the Merkle illuminates under-recognized role places like it have filled in housing Tacoma’s most vulnerable.

The Merkle, Morzol says, has been a hotel in name only. In reality, it’s operated as an extremely low-income apartment building of sorts, serving individuals with limited means and other barriers to housing, like criminal records, a history of evictions and poor credit scores.

Residents at places like the Merkle, Morzol says, have rarely enjoyed the tenant protections that less-vulnerable residents take for granted under state law — even though many have lived in these arrangements for years.

If there’s anything good to take from the current situation, Morzol says, it’s that at least the building’s new owners are treating residents like the tenants they are and not hotel guests. If Merkle residents were treated as hotel guests, as Morzol says they have been in the past, they wouldn’t have been entitled to the notice they received.

“They fill a big gray area that’s unexplored. There’s a whole segment of people in our society that are living in these arrangements,and in most cases they’re denied the rights of tenancy,” Morzol says.

At the same time, the reality for Bari and others remains the same.

He has to be out by the end of next month, and so far he’s found nowhere to go.

“(Merkle residents) are unable to afford these other places, so they have to rely on these other accommodations. I think that’s really the trap that they’re caught in, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” Morzol says.

“I don’t know what the right answer is in this situation,” the attorney adds.

“All I know is it exists out there.”