Aaron Cunningham had no idea the nightmare he was signing up for when he agreed to lend around $1.6 million to the owner of two distressed properties — an 11-unit motel and an adjacent, three-story apartment building — on Aurora Avenue North.

Cunningham is the founder and CEO of Inland Capital, a Spokane-based private money lender that typically provides short-term loans to real estate investors to rehabilitate and rebrand their properties.

It wasn’t until after the properties’ owner defaulted on his loans following a deadly arson at the apartment building in July 2020 that Cunningham learned of the two properties’ reputation among neighbors on the eastern slope of Queen Anne.

The Hillside Motel, at 2451 Aurora Ave. N., and the now-vacant apartment building next door, have long been hubs for drug-dealing, prostitution and the trafficking of stolen goods, according to police, court records and neighbors. Seattle police served a search warrant at one of the motel rooms on Oct. 14 and seized 2,200 fentanyl pills, 405 grams of meth, some crack cocaine and seven dogs, four of them puppies. Though no one was arrested, a suspect was identified in what a police spokesperson confirmed was part of a larger investigation.

The motel, which has been closed for more than a year, was also the scene of a nonfatal shooting in August. And a few of the motel’s known occupants are facing criminal charges stemming from arrests elsewhere in the city, court records show.

The Hillside Motel on Aurora Avenue North. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Since foreclosing on the properties this summer, Cunningham has been working to evict those who live there, including the drug dealers and pimps he says have taken over the Hillside. But the legal process is still in an early stage, and Inland Capital only recently, with assistance from the King County sheriff’s civil unit, was able to identify by name people who are occupying the motel.

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“It’s a nightmare. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never had anything like this (happen),” he said.

Though Inland Capital never entered into any rental agreements with the Hillside’s occupants, has no intentions of operating the motel and has notified residents they need to vacate the property, the company is now pursuing a court order to evict the squatters who in some respects have the same legal rights as renters.

But an attorney who works on behalf of low-income people facing eviction says the Hillside’s occupants are resistant to being forced out without having safe housing to move to during the pandemic. At least one resident insists there is no criminal activity at the motel.

“We’re just homeless and want a place to stay. … It’s our home and it’s only valuable to us,” Troy Taylor said.

What would usually be a straightforward civil-court process gets a little murky with the city’s COVID-19 moratorium on evictions that has been extended through January, and a winter weather moratorium that will be in effect from Dec. 1 to March 1. Both moratoriums allow evictions if there is an imminent threat to health and safety, while the winter weather moratorium also allows evictions if a tenant or guest engages in drug or criminal activity. But Inland will need to provide evidence in court to trigger those exemptions.

Cunningham anticipates it’ll cost $50,000 to $100,000 in legal fees to evict the Hillside’s occupants and thousands more to secure the property from trespassers. In the meantime, he said city officials have barred Inland Capital from shutting off the power and water or barricading the motel rooms and parking lot until the occupants are gone.

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“We don’t have the right to legally do anything at the property until we gain possession,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the middle of a Netflix documentary. I think we are in the homestretch, assuming we can get everything done (before winter). If not, we’ll have to wait till spring.”

Both properties, which together sit on just under half an acre, are scheduled to go up for auction, with online bids being accepted Nov. 29 through Dec. 1. The starting bid is $650,000. The properties, according to King County property records, have a combined appraised value of $1.5 million.


The motel’s occupants are fighting the eviction, according to attorney Edmund Witter and legal assistant Arlen Olson, both with the Housing Justice Project, a program of the King County Bar Association that works with low-income tenants facing eviction.

The project is representing seven of the motel’s occupants, including some who’ve lived at the Hillside for the past six years, Olson said.

Court records show 11 occupants have so far filed responses to Inland Capital’s complaint for forcible or unlawful detainer, indicating they are parties to the eviction proceedings.

A forcible detainer is aimed at someone accused of using force or threats to gain unlawful entry to a property or against a property owner after being asked to leave, while an unlawful detainer can relate to someone who occupies a property without the owner’s permission and refuses to vacate, according to state law.

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Inland Capital filed its complaint for both kinds of detainers, or evictions, in September in King County Superior Court against 50 John and Jane Does, though it is unclear how many people are actually living at the Hillside, or how many are involved in criminal activity.

Witter said Inland Capital’s complaint doesn’t mention any supposed threats to public health and safety. While the two sides have been in contact, the allegations he’s heard of criminal activity at the motel are “vague and broad,” he said.

“They’re still renters, even if they’re squatting,” Witter said of the Hillside’s occupants. “There are a lot of hotels (on Aurora) that call themselves hotels but they’re long-term dwellings (and being called a hotel or motel) doesn’t change what they are legally.”

A date for a court hearing has not yet been set. Witter hopes to come to some agreement with Inland’s attorney to facilitate the residents’ move to other housing.

“Everybody wants affordable, safe housing and that’s ultimately what we’re looking for,” he said. “It’s a lot of people who all have their individual needs. Some have options, others don’t know where they’re going to go.”

There was a nonfatal shooting at the motel in August, and the 40-year-old man charged with first-degree assault in that case is a felon who remains jailed in lieu of $500,000 bail, court records show. Taylor, one of the men listed in court records as a witness to the shooting, was sentenced Oct. 8 to nearly four years in prison for felony drug crimes.

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Reached by phone a week before he was to begin serving his sentence, Taylor said no one at the motel was involved in prostitution or drug-dealing.

“Drugs sell themselves. That’s how Washington is,” said Taylor, 54. “The Hillside is no different than any other motel on Aurora. … They complain about every hotel, that’s what neighbors do all up and down Aurora.”

Taylor estimated 25 people, including two young children, live at the Hillside.

Capt. Matthew Allen, commander of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct, considers the Hillside a “hot spot” and has ordered patrols at the motel and in the surrounding neighborhood when staffing and 911 call volumes allow.

“The Hillside has generated a number of community complaints, to include drug use, drug sales, concerns about potential human trafficking, prostitution activity and the like. Not only at the Hillside, but then there’s been concerns about the criminal activity that occurs around the Hillside,” Allen said. “A lot of people that may frequent that location and/or drug users are then going into the neighborhood in order to steal items and then try to quickly sell them so they can buy more drugs.”

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A joint enforcement team, comprised of a police detective and officials from the fire department, code-enforcement and public health are also monitoring conditions at the Hillside and outreach workers contacted motel residents to offer services, said Allen, who didn’t know whether any residents took them up on the offer.

“Because people are … ‘housed’ there, as opposed to just out on the street, they kind of fall on the hierarchy of services that are available,” Allen said. “In other words, people see they have a roof over their heads so it’s not the same as a person who might be living outside or in a tent somewhere.”

Paula Mueller has lived on a ridge above the Hillside since 1989 and leads a network of 45 Block Watch captains in Queen Anne. She said the Hillside’s longtime owner died about three years ago and her properties transferred to an heir — and that’s when Block Watch captains in the neighborhood noticed a general increase in car prowls, thefts and outbuilding break-ins that they attribute to drug users who patronize the Hillside.

Drug users will park in the neighborhood above the Hillside, then pass out in their cars, often blocking driveways, she said. Feces, needles, bloody rags and other biohazards contribute to health concerns.

“It’s been an issue for a long time, but the last few years … it’s become just terribly untenable,” said Mueller, 74, who also chairs the Queen Anne Community Council and is a member of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct Advisory Council.

If anyone has had a front-row seat to the impacts of drug use and crime in the area, it’s Christopher Goodwin, who runs an auto repair shop 1,000 feet south of the Hillside. After spending 20 years on Capitol Hill, Goodwin moved his business to a leased building on Aurora in summer 2020, where he immediately clashed with a man he says was pimping a woman out of a tent behind his shop.

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Christopher Goodwin and Paula Mueller stand Oct. 1 at the Dexter Street underpass below Aurora Avenue near his business. Goodwin says he and his customers have been repeatedly threatened by people using drugs at the bus stop outside his front door, or on the staircase to the underpass. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Weeks after telling the man he had to leave, Goodwin said he finally “pitchforked” the tent and trash — including hundreds of used condoms and syringes — into his truck and drove it to the dump.

He said he and his customers have been repeatedly threatened by drug users who shoot heroin or smoke fentanyl at the bus stop outside his front door, or on the nearby staircase that leads down to the Dexter Street underpass.

Goodwin, 58, said he’s performed CPR on drug users at the bus stop and on the staircase and during the summer, he called 911 several times to report overdoses.

A used syringe, one of many littering the steps down to the Dexter underpass under Aurora Avenue on Oct. 1. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

In early August, two luxury cars, a motorcycle and at least $50,000 worth of tools were stolen during a break-in at Goodwin’s shop.

After reporting the break-in to police and posting information about the stolen cars on Facebook, Goodwin said a mechanic friend spotted one of the vehicles parked outside a homeless encampment near 15th Avenue West and West Galer Street. The next day, a man called him and said the second car, a Mercedes-Benz convertible, was at an encampment in Lynnwood.

Though Goodwin was able to recover the stolen cars, the motorcycle and his tools are still missing.

Within a day or two of the break-in, Goodwin said a sign went up outside the Hillside, advertising tools for sale. When Goodwin went to the motel to see if the tools were his, the people there refused to let him look at them.

“They said, ‘We’re not showing you anything,'” Goodwin said. “I wanted my stuff back. I still want my stuff back.”