A Samish Way motel that has long been a hub for illegal activity may soon rent its last room as the city looks to condemn the building as a blight on the neighborhood.
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville announced Monday, Sept. 22, the city’s intent to condemn the Aloha Motel, located at 301 and 315 N. Samish Way.
“We are no longer going to tolerate the deterioration of this neighborhood,” Linville said. “This is the first serious action that the city has taken to address issues on Samish Way.”
The action has been several months to a year in the making, as city police, firefighters and Whatcom County Health Department staff built a case against the motel one drug bust, overdose, death, and contaminated room at a time.
“One of the reasons it’s taken the time it has was we were gathering data for five months so a decision will be upheld,” Linville said. “I believe this will make a difference.”
In the last month the motel had two deaths, two confirmed drug overdoses and several drug-related arrests, according to city officials.
The city will take a similar tack in condemning the property as it did when it worked to shut down the Bellingham Inn, which used to stand at 202 E. Holly St. The building is now home to Bob’s Burgers & Brew, other businesses and apartments.
To condemn the property under state law, the city must show the spot has had illegal drug activity in the past year, and that the property or building constitutes a threat to public health, safety or welfare.
Health Department officials have confirmed methamphetamine contamination in 15 motel rooms along Samish Way in recent months, eight of those at the Aloha, said Vanessa Blackburn, city communications director.
When the city voted to condemn the Bellingham Inn in 2002, the Aloha Motel was the runner-up for number of drug overdoses in motels. At the time, the Bellingham Inn was the only one of a dozen motels of similar size to have a death investigation believed to be related to a drug overdose, The Bellingham Herald reported.
The city has given the Aloha owners at least three chances to prevent illegal activity on the property, Blackburn said.
Linville and a team of organizations that are working on cleaning up the area do not have plans for the property yet.
That said, the city will not present the option for abatement to City Council when it brings an ordinance for condemnation forward in late October. Abatement would allow a developer or buyer to come in and clean up the current building. That doesn’t look like an option in this case, Linville said.
“We did not want to have a boarded-up building standing on the corner for the next year,” Linville said.
If the city buys the property for “fair market value” through the condemnation process, the city’s planning department and community development division will examine possible uses, including residential or commercial development.
The city did have some problems communicating with the motel’s owners due to a language barrier. Staff brought in a Korean translator Monday to help discuss the city’s plan.
Owner Sang T Yi Kim, who according to county data bought the Aloha Motel in 2007 for $1.4 million, did not immediately return a phone call Monday afternoon. The appraised value of the property is about $1.2 million.
What will happen if and when the rooms are closed and the root of the problem remains?
“As we shut down places people live in, we can’t put them out on the street,” Linville said. “We’ve worked with social services to place people in housing as rooms were condemned. ... But when we discover illegal activity going on, they need to go to jail.”
The plan is to deal with every problem that exists, which could eventually include other motels with similar problems, but the city can’t attack all problems at once, Linville said.
“We picked the one with the worst evidence,” she said. “Prosecutor Dave McEachran and I will work on a strategy moving forward.”
In the past, city and government organizations have given out motel vouchers during winter months to people who needed somewhere warm to stay, but those vouchers were never good at the Aloha, Blackburn said. Linville said she’d like to consider alternatives to those vouchers.
Members of the Sehome and York neighborhood associations met last January to talk about problems along Samish Way, specifically safety and security.
Sehome Neighborhood Association President Jean Hamilton said she hopes the mayor and the city will be able to condemn the Aloha.
“It’s been such a magnet for drugs and crime for a long time,” Hamilton said. “It sort of drags the neighborhood down.”
And the Aloha is not the only problem site, Hamilton said, but neighbors understand the need for affordable rooms.
“This is not a ‘Not in my backyard’ neighborhood,” Hamilton said. “We understand that there are people who don’t have any choice but to live there. We’re hoping to see a better alternative for the people living there.”
Pastor Rick Qualls is coordinator of the Samish Way Coalition, a group of faith-based groups, the mayor’s office, businesses and social service organizations.
He said the coalition’s next step will be to create some sort of permanent presence along Samish Way to help with needs like providing ways for people to do laundry, cook, connect with resources, and in the longer term, address safety and housing.
“How can we partner up to make a difference in the long term?” Qualls said.