A Bellingham motel that caters to long-term guests soon could be shut down if a judge decides the state was right to not renew its license.
Washington State Department of Health staff said Macs Motel at 1215 E. Maple St. is not truly operating as a motel, so it should not be able to renew its required transient accommodation license.
To qualify for that license, a motel or other facility (hotel, bed and breakfast, resort, etc.) must rent rooms to people for fewer than 30 days.
But the Macs Motel rents out rooms for longer time periods: A Feb. 4, 2015, inspection found most rooms were occupied by people who had been there for several months to several years. The shortest stay at the time was just more than a month, while the longest was someone who had lived there 10 years.
“There’s a real big difference between an apartment and a hotel,” said Gregory McKnight, supervisor of the health department’s transient accommodations program. “We’ve seen a lot of this: Facilities are operating as apartment buildings but call themselves transient accommodations.”
While the license issue is hammered out between the state and the owner Shaheen Ali, who goes by Shauna, guests have been told they need to be out of the motel by 12:01 a.m. Jan. 5, 2016.
The motel hasn’t had a current license with the health department since mid-2013.
Ali, whose company Live Hotel Group USA owns the motel, said the state normally sends a notice each year to remind them to reapply for the license. When the motel didn’t get the notice in 2013, Ali said she emailed the health department to ask about it and was told it would go out automatically.
We don’t want people bypassing the landlord-tenant law. By staying in a motel, you shouldn’t have to give up your rights as a tenant.
Gregory McKnight, transient accommodations program supervisor, Washington State Department of Health
She said when she checked back in again, she was told a computer glitch prevented the notice from being sent, and to contact someone at the department. She did so, but by that time, Ali claims, the department said the license had lapsed and the motel would have to reapply.
But state health department staff said that Ali does not regularly check her mail, and regardless of whether or not she got the notice, she would have been able to renew the license online or at their office.
“They can pay online, they don’t have to wait for the card,” McKnight said. “It’s not like there’s some magic number on the card they have to have.”
The state says the new application for a transient accommodation license came in on Sept. 9, 2014, and inspections were performed on Dec. 2, 2014, and Feb. 4, 2015.
Deficiencies and responses
In June 2015, the application for the renewed license was denied.
The state’s reasons for denying the permit include a slew of deficiencies observed at the motel during the investigation:
▪ There were no replacement linens, towels, sheets, blankets, pillowcases and pillows, showing evidence that rooms were not regularly cleaned and linens were not washed by staff. Ali said the motel has a utility room for extra supplies that is kept locked at all times and the manager on duty will take items out if a housekeeper needs them.
▪ The washing machines on site did not work – one had stagnant green water in it – and there was no proof provided of a contract for commercial laundry service. Ali said the day the inspection was conducted the old laundry room was out of service, the motel was using a different laundry room in another building on site, and a repairman had been working on the old laundry room the previous night.
▪ Room 36 had bed bugs. Ali said on finding the bedbugs, the room was treated.
▪ The motel doesn’t provide guests with soap. Ali said that’s not true, the motel always has individual soaps for guests.
▪ Inspections could be performed only in seven of 34 rooms because the rest were occupied by long-term guests and functioning as apartments. Ali said the length of stay on the state’s list is far from accurate, and she was told when she bought the motel in 2007 that they could allow people to stay 28 days, then check out and check in again.
Last year this time Macs was a peaceful place with all the staff and guests in such a joyous and festive mood. This year was quite dismal and gloomy, a stark contrast to say the least.
Shauna Ali, Macs Motel owner
A city building inspector visited the property in August 2015 and found only minor maintenance issues.
Unlike the Aloha Motel across the street — which also housed many long-term guests, was condemned by the city for housing criminal activity and was demolished in November — the Macs Motel owner’s issues lie with the state at the moment.
The city has not started any action against the motel but could be responsible for enforcement if the motel operates without a license. The state health department cannot shut down motels in the same way it can shut down restaurants, McKnight said.
Why the Macs?
Ali said she doesn’t understand why Macs has been singled out, when other motels in the area also allow guests to stay for longer than 29 days.
“Last year this time Macs was a peaceful place with all the staff and guests in such a joyous and festive mood,” Ali said in an email Dec. 28. “We had decorated the place and most of the guests were only happy to help. ... This year was quite dismal and gloomy, a stark contrast to say the least. There were no lights, no music, no laughter, all that was replaced by mere anxiety.”
The Aloha rented rooms by the month, and so do remaining nearby motels.
“As long as we are treated without discrimination we can stop the long term stay,” Ali wrote in a response to the state’s report denying the license. “DOH should have the same rules and standards for all motels without exceptions.”
McKnight likened the scenario to someone getting pulled over for speeding.
“It’s not like there aren’t more people out there speeding,” he said. “The real issue, why this is something we focus on — it’s really a health equity or social justice issue. We don’t want people bypassing the landlord-tenant law. By staying in a motel, you shouldn’t have to give up your rights as a tenant.”
Once someone crosses the threshold of staying somewhere more than 29 days, they are technically a tenant under state law, McKnight said.
In July, the state told the city about the license decision. The next month, the city met with Ali to explain what steps could be taken to convert the motel into long-term housing, essentially bringing it up to code for the way it is already used by many people, said Darby Cowles, senior planner with the city.
But Ali intends to maintain the facility as a motel, and said the city and the Opportunity Council have made things harder for her.
“We were left with the impression that it might require several upgrades that might not be economically feasible,” Ali wrote in a Dec. 31 email to The Bellingham Herald.
Additionally, Ali wrote, it is important to think about the fact the motel was charging $699 per month, while it would be standard to ask for first and last month’s rent and a deposit for an apartment.
“That would mean that they would have to come up with $2,100 upfront to move in!” Ali wrote. “Which is impossible for these people else they would not be in motels to begin with.”
The city shifted money in its budget so the council’s city-funded Homeless Outreach Team could hire another part-time person just to focus on helping the people living at the Macs Motel. That person started Dec. 8, and the team met with people living at the motel starting in early December.
“In a nutshell, what we’re trying to do with our outreach services is to learn enough about the people who are living there and help those who are the highest risk of becoming homeless as a result of the motel losing its license to operate,” said Greg Winter, who recently became the executive director of the Opportunity Council.
Ali said the move seemed misguided.
“I feel that this matter is nothing but an inability on part of all Government entities involved,” Ali wrote. “The City, DOH and Opportunity Council were always well aware of the fact that there are long term guests in several motels.”
Ali said the groups have had since July to relocate the motel’s guests.
The people left twisting in the wind are the owners and the people who literally have nowhere else to go, she wrote, some of them have “literally lived in the woods before.”
The staff is very sorry to see you all leave and wish you all the best in your new homes and the future.
Shauna Ali, Macs Motel owner, in letter to guests
The stories vary for each person living there: a family with a child, people with serious health conditions, and one or two cases of people who have backgrounds that make it difficult for them to find housing, Winter said.
“The purpose of our outreach is to sort through everybody’s very unique situation and help them find suitable housing,” he said. “That could involve negotiating with landlords or simply searching for a room or rent that’s affordable, because most of the people who are there have very limited incomes.”
Some people had already found alternate housing without the Opportunity Council, Winter said, but the concern is to make sure everyone has shelter, especially in the winter months.
“It’s especially important this time of year,” Winter said.
The city and Opportunity Council also reached out to the Northwest Justice Project, which held a meeting to advise the motel’s guests of their rights under the landlord-tenant act.
Ali said that since that meeting, people have not only refused to leave, but some have also refused to continue paying for their rooms.
On Dec. 15, Ali called Bellingham Police to remove someone who refused to leave their room at the end of their stay, citing a Dec. 7 order from the state to cease operations, but officers refused to help, as the order was “too vague” and therefore not something they could enforce. It was deemed a civil matter, and Ali was directed to talk to the city attorney’s office.
A letter was posted at each room Dec. 17, explaining that guests needed to be out by the end of Jan. 4, because the state had ordered the motel to cease operations.
“Macs motel has been informing you all for the past few month (sic) to find alternative accommodation,” the letter states. “As of December 7th, 2015 Macs motel has already ceased services to new and short term guest (sic). On January 5th, 2016 12.01 am Macs motel will cease all operations to current long term guests.”
“Finally, Macs Motel staff would like to thank all the guest for being at Macs and it was a pleasure serving you all as guest here,” the letter concludes. “The staff is very sorry to see you all leave and wish you all the best in your new homes and the future. Best wishes, Shauna Ali.”
The next day, Dec. 18, Ali filed seven small claims with Whatcom District Court against people in different rooms at the motel.
The claims range from $335, for a motel stay and pet fees, to $3,356.42, for a motel stay, pet fees, and late fees, according to court documents.
Those claims aren’t scheduled to be heard until Jan. 21, 2016.
A court conference on the motel’s license is scheduled to take place Jan. 5.