‘Back where I started’: Dozens of tenants forced out of downtown apartment without warning after city intervenes over code violations
Tenants at the Wall Street Apartments in downtown Spokane, many of whom are disabled and poor, are forced out after only one week’s notice, as the city shut down the building and boarded up doors and windows due to code violations and unsanitary conditions.
With her belongings piled up on the sidewalk next to the building’s entrance Tuesday, Rita Sherwood wasn’t sure what to do next.
“I have nowhere else to go,” the 47-year-old said quietly, wiping her tears.
Before moving to the fourth floor of the building four months ago, Sherwood and her husband Michael, 40, were living out of their car. Thanks to a state Department of Social and Health Services program called Housing and Basic Needs that provides assistance to low-income people who cannot work, they were given assistance and referred to the property.
Despite their fear of the night ahead, Michael wondered if evacuation could be a positive thing.
“Cockroaches, bedbugs, you name it,” he said. Residents sometimes lacked hot water and endured unpleasant odors.
“The smell is all over the damn building, you can’t get away from it,” he said.
Living conditions and safety concerns have captured the city’s attention for about a year. Attempts to reach the owner, Dr. Alaa Al-Kharwaili, were obstructed and a solution was ultimately not reached, she said, ordering the city to issue a notice of non-occupancy — barring anyone from staying at the site. Residents have until Wednesday to move out.
Forcing people out was the final decision, Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaefer said.
“We prefer voluntary compliance. There are letters, meetings, inspections, one-on-one meetings with deputy firefighters, building officials and others to point out life safety issues and more than enough time to respond,” Schaefer said. “(Al-Kharwili) refused to respond, so we took action,” he added.
The property is now entering the receivership process in which the creditor, Inland Northwest Bank, will take ownership. It has 35 units, but not all of them are currently occupied.
Under the bank’s supervision, tenants can return when issues raised by agencies are addressed, according to Spokane Fire Department Fire Marshal Lance Dahl.
Although it can be difficult to know who is a legal tenant in a building, the building’s 24 residents can seek help from Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners to help find new housing, according to Dahl.
Since September of last year, city agencies, including code enforcement, building and fire marshal, have participated in multiple hearings with the owner to address concerns regarding the property which included water leaks, sewage leaks, a common area covered in trash, and an insect infestation. Exterior doors and windows are inadequately weatherproof, deficient heating systems and hazardous electrical conditions, according to the law enforcement report.
Perhaps the most glaring safety problem in the building was the frequent and illegal blocking of fire escape exits.
City workers removed bolts that illegally blocked escape routes and found them back in place several times, Dahl said.
“I think he was closing the doors to keep people from climbing out to escape,” Dahl said. “But he’s locking emergency doors in a building that doesn’t have a sprinkler system — and that poses a huge safety risk.”
Al-Kharwaili, a general internal medicine physician, said in an interview Tuesday that he has not received many notifications and attempts to reach him, and feels he is being treated unfairly by the city.
He said his mission is to provide housing opportunities to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity. He said he had fulfilled inspection regulations and worked hard to improve the condition of the more than a century-old building.
Al-Kharwaili said that he eliminated insects in the building and worked hard to update the plumbing and make renovations when possible. More than anything else, he believes in helping low-income people however he can.
“I wanted this building to be something useful to the community,” he said. In addition to keeping the rent low, he also claims to pay all of the tenant’s utilities. Al-Kharwaili said he recently raised the rent to $775 a month.
“My apartment is really low-income housing. It’s the last chance for renters to get housing.
Allison Fox was one of those tenants.
“I have been arrested so many times that I cannot find housing,” said the 38-year-old, who also received housing through the state program because she said she suffers from chronic back pain and illnesses caused by a previous stroke. .
She feels sad to leave her home because she believes she will need work to afford other housing. She didn’t mind the vermin infesting the building because she encountered it at the Trent Resource and Assistance Center, a homeless shelter in the city where she previously lived.
Al-Kharwaili said that insects come into the building from these shelters.
“I do treatments when we catch bugs and I do regular treatments every two weeks. But they come with people from shelters.” “What can I do?”
While she did not want to leave, Fox said she did not like the way Al-Kharwili questioned her guests in an attempt to limit foot traffic in the building.
Al-Kharwaili said that these efforts are aimed at safety and reducing drug abuse in the building. That’s something Tom Allen, 38, appreciates.
“He mentioned that one of the requirements for me moving in was that I not cause a huge traffic congestion,” Allen said. “I know from experience what happens in buildings where a lot of people are coming in and out – it’s an absolute nightmare.”
Allen was another tenant who said he couldn’t get housing if it weren’t for the state program and the Wall Street Apartment Building.
This was due to an argument with the previous landlord that led to his eviction. In Washington, evictions remain on a person’s record permanently, making it difficult to find a new apartment.
But Al-Kharwaili gave Allen the keys to his new apartment even before he signed the lease.
“He understood my situation, what I went through, and he said, ‘Look, I know you have an eviction on your record. I know you’ve had a hard life. But I want to take a risk on you. Because I believe in you,'” Allen said.
He had moved into an apartment on the third floor just two weeks ago.
“This way, I’m back where I started,” he said as he lifted the laundry basket full of clothes into the trunk of his car.