The renovated Commercial Building in the gritty West First area was billed as a sober, clean and safe oasis on a downtown strip teeming with hookers and drunks.
New furniture, new paint, new carpet, clean bathrooms, cable television and stiff house rules made the apartment house seem almost posh to poor men emerging from detox centers and flop houses.
The federal government burst that sales pitch this month by yanking its support for the Commercial, claiming an unusually long list of tenant rules discriminates against drug addicts and alcoholics.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development objected to rules such as no alcohol consumption, mandatory chores, curfews, and possible room searches and urine tests.
One Spokane attorney calls the rules “martial law.”
The Spokane Housing Authority stopped passing along federal subsidies for the 52 rooms earlier this month. It also no longer refers people to the new apartment house.
Commercial manager Ann Finke said the conflict with federal authorities foils efforts to help clean up West First. “The government is telling us, ‘Forget it.”’
In response to the fuss, the Commercial scrapped its controversial rules three weeks ago. Until it reaches a new agreement with the housing authority, it is surviving without the federal money which was to provide about a third of the rent for the $328-a-month apartments.
“We’ve had to let these (tenants) do what they please,” Finke said Thursday. “The place has gone downhill.”
Now, the building at 1115 W. First endures typical skid row problems, Finke said.
Some rooms are used for prostitution, she said. Marijuana, urine and excrement are found on the floors. Night managers are threatened by tenants. A recent roof party raged on after 3 a.m.
Some city officials are also concerned about the $1.6 million renovation project. The city coordinated loans for about $210,000 to the effort. The rest of the money came from a web of grants, loans and investor cash.
“It would be nice for not only that building, but other buildings in that area to have a safe haven,” said Michael Adolfae, director of the city’s community development department. “It only makes sense.”
Housing authority director Mary Jo Harvey said her agency is simply enforcing HUD’s decision. She said the house rules were suitable for a treatment center, but not for a complex funded for permanent living.
Finke said the building was filling its rooms with people who liked the rules during its first month of operation in April. Now, she said, the place is less than half full.
Charles Washington moved from a drug and alcohol treatment center to the Commercial when the rules were still enforced. Washington and two other tenants said they miss the rules, and fear they will relapse into their addictions.
“When I came here the place was very clean,” Washington said. “It was a clean place to live. Then everybody started fussing about the rules.”
Scrutiny began when three tenants questioned the rules. HUD took a look. So did the Spokane Housing Authority, which asked the Spokane Legal Services Center for its opinion.
“I think there are ways to run a clean, safe, sober operation without suspending the civil rights of the tenant,” said Jim Bamberger, center director. “Their rules far exceed those of any normal residential apartment complex, whether drug-free or not.”
Bamberger said he hopes the issue settles amicably.
“We don’t want the place trashed,” he said, noting he endorses the Commercial’s goals. But “it’s martial law over there. And do you need martial law for drug-free living? I hope not.”
Bob Peeler isn’t picking sides in this housing clash. The coordinator of the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program said both sides make strong points.
“It would be an asset to this area to have a building down here that is drug- and alcohol-free. As long as they’re not violating people’s rights, let them do it.”
Peeler said some of the Commercial rules seem too strict, but he said landlords need more power to curb drugs and alcohol, and to keep buildings safe.
“If we can’t keep it drug- and alcohol-free, where is our control? … I think there’s room for compromise.”
The Commercial’s owner, Otis Associates Limited Partnership, has declined to sign an agreement with the Spokane Housing Authority, which would throw out most of the house rules in exchange for rent subsidies, and referrals.
Jim Delegans, one of the Commercial’s owners, said he is willing to compromise, but that he wants to protect the tenants and the investment.
“I don’t think its as much of a civil rights issue as a common sense issue.” Delegans said. “We would love to have a building with no rules and regulations where a fellow could have a glass of wine in the privacy of his room, or with dinner, but the reality is that isn’t the population we’re serving,” he said, noting most tenants have drug, alcohol or emotional problems.
Negotiations continue at a meeting today. Every party appears optimistic an agreement can be reached. One of the latest proposals by the Spokane Housing Authority is to forbid alcohol in the common areas, but allow it in the rooms.
Delegans isn’t satisfied. He said other apartment houses in the country with rules similar to the Commercial’s receive federal subsidies.
“If we accept their rules” we will create an apartment house “accessible to prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. We would have brought into the neighborhood the very same thing we wanted to get out of the neighborhood.”