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So Long, Otis 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he end of an era may be only days away in downtown Spokane, but an effort to create better ways to deal with low-income tenants -- and the homeless -- is just beginning.





The Otis Hotel, Spokane's last big skid row hotel, changed hands Sept. 1. The new owner, RenCorp, plans to upgrade the nearly century-old building into modern apartments, completing a wave of gentrification that has swept along the 1000 and 1100 blocks of West First in recent months.





Two other buildings that have housed low-income tenants along West First, the New Madison Apartments and the Commercial Building, have also changed hands for renovation since May, the three closures displacing nearly 200 people.





The Otis is down to its last 20 residents this week, according to city staff and social service workers.





RenCorp, which wanted everybody out by Oct. 23, has agreed to forestall starting the eviction process, says Bob Peeler of Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP). Peeler is among the core group of social service workers who have created a crisis housing team to help the Otis tenants find new homes in short order in a tight market.





In reaction to the Otis closure, and to call attention to low-income and homeless issues, a tent city was erected last week in the boulevard strip along the West 1000 block of Riverside Ave. The tent city came down Tuesday after a deal was reached between homeless advocates, Catholic Charities and the city.





Organizer David Bilsland says his goal was to raise awareness by choosing the downtown block. He told The Inlander he has permission to set up tents on two private lots in northeast Spokane to maintain his crusade for a tent city.





"This is the richest block between Seattle and Minneapolis," Bilsland says, noting the West Riverside encampment is surrounded by Spokane's Catholic Diocese headquarters, daily and weekly newspapers, the federal building, the Masonic Temple and the Spokane Club.





Observers such as City Council President Joe Shogan have praised the Herculean task of relocating impoverished tenants in a market that has a tiny stock of low-income housing.





"I can't tell you how proud I am and how much praise goes to the housing team for what they are doing," Shogan says. "It's really almost miraculous."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & ront-line workers caution, however, that the Otis "miracle" is not the highlight of anything. "The Otis is the tip of the iceberg," says Rob McCann of Catholic Charities. "This is not a true experience of our housing stock in Spokane. In this case we have trained professionals from four or five agencies engaging every one of those Otis residents. If the Otis had just simply closed, you would have a much different outcome."





Peeler says social workers dipped into their private knowledge of likely sources of housing and accommodating landlords in order to place residents of the New Madison and Commercial buildings. The stock of low-income housing -- tight to begin with -- was virtually exhausted when the Otis changed hands, he says.





"The average income at the Otis was $652 a month." Peeler says. "And the majority of those were on GAU (general assistance, unemployed), getting $359 a month with $112 in food stamps.





"On the open rental market most landlords require three times the rent as part of your income. And if you don't have it, don't bother to apply," Peeler says. "This last 20 is going to be hard.





"You can't have a community unless you have a mix of all sorts of incomes," Peeler continues. "We say we are converting these into apartments at $700 or $800 but you still want housing for low-income. As service providers, we set up our systems to help low-income people downtown." Scattering the low-income residents "makes them less visible and makes it harder for them to get service," he adds.





As downtown Spokane gentrifies, McCann says, "You see buildings turning into condos, and more shops and restaurants, and as a citizen I say this is great, wonderful. But as a social worker I say there are fragile people we need to take care of."





Revitalizing or gentrifying downtown shouldn't come on the backs of the poor, he says. "I get the sense there is an honest effort" to address these issues, McCann says. He cites efforts to create an ordinance to make tenant displacement more humane and efforts to create a housing levy.





Efforts such as these are needed because the Otis is not the last low-income building to be flipped.





"There are probably two more in the wings, the Briggs and possibly the Helena," Peeler says, saying two or three more low-income buildings are on shaky financial grounds.





Bilsland also mentioned the Briggs, the Cooper George and two others just south of the Interstate 90 overpass as rumored to be soon on the market.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ilsland helped organize the tent encampment on Riverside to draw attention to the plight of low-income and homeless people downtown. There are far more than people know, he says.





McCann, while decrying the tent city as a media stunt, agrees on the poverty issues.





"This year we are seeing a rise in homeless in Spokane," McCann says, adding this year the 108-bed House of Charity received a grant for the first time to stay open in the summer. Normally the shelter would close in the warm months on the assumption the homeless preferred to sleep outside.





"We were expecting maybe 20 people a night. We had to turn people away. There was a bigger population than we knew and they want shelter more than we knew," McCann says.





Bilsland says this makes his point that Spokane needs a semi-permanent tent city for the homeless.





"I push this issue: We need a place for people who can't get inside, who can't get into the shelters. A tent city is necessary for safety, shelter and security. A tent city would keep couples and families together. People crave stability -- the majority of the homeless in Spokane are on the waiting list to get on the waiting list to get into housing. It can take two or three years," Bilsland says.





Until more low-income housing is built, a tent city makes sense, he says.





WHERE ARE THE SEX OFFENDERS?


Last summer, police indicated slightly more than two dozen Level III sex offenders were living in the Otis. They were concerned the Otis closure would send sex offenders out onto the streets or into the neighborhoods.





This week, social workers say they are aware of the whereabouts of only three Level III offenders. Police say it's their understanding the Level III offenders have scattered.





"When we came into the building, there were only 77 people left," says social worker Bob Peeler of SNAP. "Some people just walked out of here, and we have no clue where they are staying today."


-- Kevin Taylor

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