The new owner of an old, bad motel struck a deal with police to keep out squatters. But even that didn’t mean he could get cops to come when he called.
Tom Nickerson just bought one of Seattle’s seediest monuments. The Klose-In Motel, on Aurora, has long been known for two things: Its vintage yellow and aqua neon sign. And its vice.
“Wall-to-wall hookers and dealers” was how it was described in a Seattle Times story a few decades ago. And that was by its own manager.
But after two months in charge of the place, Nickerson can’t decide which is worse: the last hangers-on of the now-shuttered motel, or city bureaucracy.
“It’s completely Orwellian out here,” he says.
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The 32-room motel, an auto court built in the 1930s, was closed down in June when Nickerson bought it. He plans to demolish it and build a storage warehouse.
But just because the motel is closed, that doesn’t mean nobody’s checking in.
“Literally you board the place up, chain link it and lock it, and then drive around the block, and by the time you get back there’s already somebody breaking back in,” says Eric Reese, a construction supervisor for Nickerson.
Squatters are shooed from the old motel every morning, he said.
It’s such a problem that in July, Seattle police came to Nickerson and suggested a partnership, called a “Criminal Trespassing Program.” He puts up “keep out” signs and agrees to testify in court against any violators. In turn, the police get blanket authority to “enter the property and to arrest or ask unauthorized persons to leave,” says the agreement.
But according to Nickerson, the police have almost never come.
“We get told over and over again that it’s not a priority,” he said.
Even that would have been OK, Nickerson says, except that then the city’s building-code enforcement showed up.
Last week the city sent Nickerson an “emergency order” to secure the property, due to complaints from neighbors about the squatters. It means the building is tied up in code compliance until an inspection is completed and he pays fees of $447.
But Nickerson says because the police won’t come, and he also can’t keep anyone out on his own, he’s stuck in motel hell.
“I have one side of the city saying it’s an emergency, and then I have the police saying ‘nah, it’s not a priority,’ ” he said. “Do they want us to go all vigilante out here? I don’t think so.”
We have had this exact issue here at The Seattle Times with our old headquarters building, now owned by Canadian developers. There have been squatters in the building for years now. But sometimes when we’ve called police they’ve told us they aren’t responding to calls about squatters there.
It gets absurd. The other day I was walking by and squatters were lowering bicycles from the roof, commando-style with ropes. A woman on the ground said they had 10 bikes up there. Another passer-by called the police, but at least during the time this rappelling operation was going on, no officer came.
Squatting obviously isn’t the worst crime problem facing the city. But Seattle: What is the point of having a “no trespass” program with private-property owners if there are no resources to support it? That would include resources to try to divert the squatters into drug treatment, as opposed to jail.
“I get the sense it’s all for political expedience,” Nickerson says. “They can’t, or won’t, tackle the problem. So they say ‘hey, sign up for this program.’ It gives the illusion of help.”
Seattle police seem to be getting their acts together on the big stuff, with the federal Department of Justice repeatedly praising them recently for improvements in their use of force, as well as how they react in crisis situations.
But it’s this little stuff that’s driving many city residents nuts.
“We close this motel up every day, and every day they pry it back open,” Nickerson said. “The neighbors around here are furious with us. We’ve got no answers for them.”
Just up the road from the Klose-In, on Aurora, is the site of that planned Taj Mahal of a police station. How about we cut that in half and use the savings to hire some more cops.