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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City Council ‘left in the dark’ about dozens of tenants moved to the streets

An apartment building near the corner of Wall Street and Third Avenue has been deemed uninhabitable.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane City Council members were sharply critical of actions this week that forced two dozen people from low-income housing in downtown Spokane amid a festering homelessness problem.

City code enforcement and fire officials turned people out of the Wall Street apartments this week following complaints of insect infestations, fire safety worries and other unsanitary conditions.

The issue has become ensnared in a lawsuit. Exacerbating the problem: city councilmembers were not told of the issues before reading about them in a story published Wednesday in The Spokesman-Review.

“Why weren’t we notified?” asked Councilman Michael Cathcart during a chaotic council work session Thursday morning that included discussion of the death of a person at the apartments.

Luis Garcia, director of code enforcement, and Fire Marshal Lance Dahl offered explanations during pointed questioning by councilmembers.

Their agencies were behind a no occupancy order issued to the Wall Street apartments. With only one week notice of notice, the tenants were ordered to leave the building, many of them expected to resort to sleeping on the street.

A day before the meeting, the last tenants removed what belongings they could and left the building. At the time, council members were completely unaware of the situation.

Councilmember Karen Stratton sought answers.

“They were homeless. They were put there because it was standard or good housing. And now they’re on the streets again,” she said. “I worry about those individuals; there doesn’t seem to be anybody helping them get to where they need to go.”

According to Garcia, the city or other “outside” agencies have yet to deploy any financial assistance to relocate the tenants.

Garcia did not know when tenants would receive financial assistance.

He also didn’t know how many tenants there were.

“This type of enforcement effort is in emergency fashion, so identifying those stakeholders is not immediate,” Garcia said. “The identification of the tenants will be ongoing even after the do-not-occupy has been in place.”

Councilmember Jonathan Bingle of District 1 – home to the apartments – pushed further.

“You might not have the exact number, but do you have a rough idea of how many people left this apartment building?”

“At this moment: No,” Garcia said.

Garcia attributed the lack of information and short notice to tenants to the urgency the safety issues of the building posed.

He said there was potential for a mass casualty event.

“ ‘Do not occupy’ is an emergency action. So we would not be able to wait until other accommodations are found,” he said “While we’re sensitive to the conditions of the tenants, the potential of mass casualty outweighs that.”

Cathcart, also of District 1, quickly responded.

“If we knew there was potential for mass casualty, why were council members not told?” he asked. “And when the decision was made, knowing there would be a massive impact on the community, again, why weren’t we notified?”

Garcia said nothing in any statute or municipal code says a legislative body of any type should be notified during the do-not-occupy process.

Councilmember Betsy Wilkerson questioned how tenants were allowed to reside in the building if it was such a safety concern.

“People were receiving vouchers to live in these types of apartments, so is there no monitoring going on?” she said. “Some of those are city, state and federal dollars. And so where does that responsibility lie?”

Garcia and Dahl nodded.

As Cathcart repeatedly pushed Garcia about how long ago were code enforcement and fire marshal workers looking at issuing a no-occupancy order, he was interrupted.

“Michael, there is pending litigation on this matter,” Spokane City Attorney Lynden Smithson said as he stood up, raising a hand in the air. “If you have more specific questions we probably should go to executive session.”

“Why are we even talking about this if there is pending litigation?” Councilmember Zack Zappone asked.

Smithson said the study session was organized to hear from Garcia about the actions his department took to get to the current state of the issue.

Council President Lori Kinnear said the council was unaware of the pending litigation.

Smithson said this is because the city was served only a day prior.

As the council finished the discussion, members began pitching topics to be discussed in the executive session.

Kinnear said she hopes to communicate better with code enforcement in the future.

“When we get into executive session and talk about litigation, we will include what is currently in the building official process so we’re not left in the dark,” she said.

Stratton said there is still much about the situation the council wishes to learn.

“Some of us are not just interested in code enforcement but just what happened,” she said. “Yesterday I was told that we had service providers on the ground and checks were to be given to 24 tenants, and I’m not sure who the service providers are or how that money’s being funded.”

As Stratton thanked Garcia and Dahl for attending the meeting and answering questions, the council attempted to conclude the agenda item when the landlord, Dr. Alaa Elkharwily, stood up.

He raised his voice to speak over the council members.

“Excuse me. Excuse me,” Elkharwily said as members attempted to remind him study sessions are not open for public comment. “I would like to offer a solution for the issue – I’m saving the city money by offering my own money!”

As he was ushered out of the chambers and into the hallway, Stratton stood up and followed him out.

Elkharwily spoke with Stratton, expressing his disagreement with the city.

He offered to bring any city employees to the property so they can see for themselves that it is safe.

As he spoke to the councilmember, the city attorney gently put his hand on her shoulder to remind her that she cannot converse with Elkharwily because of the pending litigation between the city and the landlord.

“I’m just listening,” Stratton said.

Smithson stepped away.

Elkharwily insisted that what Garcia had said was fabricated, and that he cared deeply for his tenants.

He then claimed the dispute with the city originated from an event on the evening of Aug. 14 in which a man died on the property.

According to the landlord, the man fell to his death from the fourth story of the fire escape of the building.

By that time, about a dozen people filled the small hallway.

After making this claim, city representatives began urging Stratton to return to the council chambers so the meeting could continue.

Stratton and Elkharwily shared a hug and, as Stratton entered the chambers, he raised a finger and spoke loudly into the open door of the council chambers.

“I will withdraw the lawsuit if you hear me!”