Monday, December 05, 2022
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Evicted Outlaw Inn renters still seeking home

by ADRIAN KNOWLER
Daily Inter Lake | November 24, 2022 12:00 AM

When Joan Corbin and her daughter Michaela see paper notices on their door, it gives them flashbacks. They can’t help but recall a cold day in January when they learned that they had a month to find new accommodations or end up on the streets.

The Corbins were among the tenants living at the FairBridge Inn and Suites, still known by many locally as The Outlaw Inn. Joan and Michaela had called the Kalispell motel their home for two years when they found the note warning them that utilities would be shut off and they would be locked out.

The hotel, previously owned by Steve and Cinthia Rice of Post Falls, Idaho, was sold to Fortify Holdings, a developer from Oregon that specializes in converting hotel and motel properties into studio apartments. From the moment the deal closed, the clock on the tenants’ time at The Outlaw was ticking.

When the eviction notices went up, the atmosphere around the motel changed, Joan said. People who never said hello to the Corbins were suddenly offering help with packing and cleaning. Some of the commotion they had become accustomed to seemed to stop as well.

“Everyone fell silent,” Joan said. “Even the neighbors weren’t arguing anymore.”

“There were hugs from people that we had passed in the hallway but never got to know,” she recalled.

Estimates vary on the number of people living in the extended-stay portion of the hotel, known as the annex, but more than 100 people were living in 65 hotel rooms, according to Tracy Diaz. Diaz is the director of Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana, or CAP, a homeless services organization that helped many of the displaced.

Residents included families with young children and elderly and disabled folks, like the Corbins. Many of them had been living there for years on month-to-month agreements with hotel management.

A few of those displaced were able to secure permanent housing with the help of financial gifts from a local philanthropist. Others were taken in at local shelters, like the Samaritan House. The Corbins were among those accepted by the Samaritan House. They looked for more permanent lodgings, but the landlords they contacted have placed them on waiting lists or denied them outright.

Joan had a stroke shortly before moving into The Outlaw, and has been using a walker to get around after extensive rehab. Michaela has a breathing condition that has required multiple surgeries. Both are unable to work and receive government assistance.

The Corbins don’t have a car, and if they hadn’t been taken in at the Samaritan House, Joan is sure they would have ended up living on the street.

The week they were forced to leave, temperatures dipped dangerously below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Going without shelter in the winter can spell disaster, according to Samaritan House Director Chris Krager.

“Unfortunately, the nature of homelessness in Montana is sometimes fatal,” Krager said.

According to Krager, the shelter took in people from seven units at the hotel, including three families. Some have found housing locally in the months since, but many haven’t been so lucky. According to Krager, some folks have had to leave the valley or even the state entirely to move in with relatives.

Of those taken in by Samaritan House, only the Corbins are still living in the shelter’s transitional apartments, which are similar to dorm rooms and have a small cooktop and bathroom.

Virginia Young and her husband were among those forced to leave the city. A resident of The Outlaw for over eight years, Young is also on waiting lists for apartments, but has had to move in with her mother-in-law to stay off the streets.

To keep her full-time job at Applied Materials, Young now commutes over 100 miles round-trip every day. She starts her commute at 4am to get to Kalispell for her 6am shift. Young estimates that her lengthened commute costs her over $600 per month in gasoline, plus the increased costs of oil changes and tires.

ALMOST EVERYONE — from city officials, to homeless advocates and local residents — agreed that The Outlaw needed a facelift. Almost everyone also agreed that converting the units into permanent housing would help address the city’s multi-family housing shortage.

The vacancy rate in the city for several years has been “near 0 percent,” according to a report issued by Kalispell Planning Director Jarod Nygren.

Although Kalispell is approving permits for new housing at record rates, finding available and affordable rental options is a challenge.

The city planning department gave the go-ahead for 649 apartment units in 2021, and at least 464 thus far in 2022, but construction can take a long time. Many new apartments are priced at market-rate, leaving them out of reach for many residents with low and fixed incomes.

A market study conducted in 2021 found that all existing subsidized residential developments in Kalispell are 100% occupied. Each had a waiting list ranging up to 25 names for senior housing and between 40 to more than 100 names on the family residential developments.

According to census data from 2015-2019 included in Nygren’s report, almost half of Kalispell’s residents are “rent overburdened,” meaning that over 30% of their income is absorbed by monthly housing costs.

Population growth, inflation and other factors continue to drive rents higher. An online search found the minimum price for available one-bedroom apartments in Kalispell at $1,100 per month. For the newer market-rate developments, one-bedroom apartments start at over $1,300 per month.

The housing affordability and availability crisis drove many to seek monthly arrangements at local hotels, which served as a consistent revenue stream for hotels like The Outlaw during the valley’s tourism shoulder season.

The Corbins paid over $800 a month for their hotel room, and CAP’s Diaz said in an interview that the hotel collected monthly rent from 65 units until the evictions. In an email to city council, Young estimated that the hotel was receiving $45,000 per month from their long-term tenants in the annex.

The rooms were small, did not have kitchens or other amenities, and renters did not have the legal protections that come with signing a lease.

These rooms, while far from ideal, were the only choice that many had.

“We are just human beings trying to survive,” Young wrote in an email to Kalispell City Council in January. “[We are] parents with children, retired or disabled vets. People have called this place home because it’s the only affordable place we can all find.”

The loss of The Outlaw is a sign of the times, according to Chris Krager. The options for residents who can’t find or afford an apartment in Kalispell are disappearing.

“The days of the weekly rental or daily rental are coming to a close in this area, so the protections that folks had that were thin to begin with are soon to be gone,” said Krager.

THE COMPANY that sold the hotel, Rocky Mountain Hospitality, LLC, is owned by Steve and Cinthia Rice. The couple “specialize in turning around underperforming hotels,” according to Cinthia Rice’s LinkedIn profile.

"The goal is to renovate, reposition and reflag," Steve Rice said in an interview with The Spokane Journal of Business in 2012. They acquired The Outlaw in June 2013.

The Rices rebranded the hotel at least twice in less than 10 years, but further work on The Outlaw was no longer in their plans, nor did they wish to continue housing the residents that had been paying to stay there for years.

When the Rices decided to sell the property, they warned that they would turn off the utilities whether or not City Hall approved the permit allowing conversion of the units to apartments, according to a statement related by Mayor Mark Johnson during the city council’s Feb. 7 meeting.

The Rices described selling The Outlaw as a “business” decision, according to a public comment made during the meeting by Tracy Diaz of CAP. She said the Rices did not respond to requests from her organization to find a solution that delayed or prevented the residents’ displacement.

Cameron Wagar, project manager for Fortify Holdings, the Oregon-based purchaser, said at the same council meeting that the firm was unaware of the presence of long-term residents when they entered negotiations with the Rices. When they learned of the tenants, Wagar said, the company amended their agreement and urged the Rices to push back the eviction date.

Fortify went so far as to publicly reveal a proposed partnership with CAP at a Feb. 7 City Council meeting to manage operations at the hotel, at no cost to the Rices, so as not to displace the residents in the winter.

Fortify publicly blamed the Rices for the partnership not coming to fruition, but according to Diaz, neither party was interested in continuing operations at The Outlaw in private conversations they had with her organization.

According to Diaz, Fortify officials said their insurance company would not allow for the building to remain occupied, and the Rices never returned many of her calls in an effort to find a resolution.

The Rices declined multiple requests for comment.

WHEN NEWS of the eviction notices got around town, many in the community were outraged at how the city council approved the permit, feeling that the council ignored the human impact of allowing the development to go forward as it did.

Before the meeting at which city council voted to approve the sale, dozens of Kalispell residents submitted public comments expressing a range of sentiments. Emails to council conveyed everything from sympathy for the displaced, to embarrassment at how cold-hearted the mid-winter evictions made the community look. Many were angry at the developer and at the council for approving the sale without considering the effect on the occupants.

“We all know we have a housing crisis in this community,” wrote Margaret Stadler in an email addressed to council members. “What are these folks to do? Where is our compassion as a community?”

Concerned citizens wrote in with all sorts of potential solutions.

“Council [could] impose a condition on the project approval which involves mitigation of impact,” wrote Ron Gerson in an email to the council. “If there were trees on the property, their removal would have to be taken into account, so it is not excessive to insist that the removal of residents be taken into account.”

Others recommended a moratorium on the evictions until the occupants could find new housing.

Kalispell resident Sharon DeMeester asked council if a phased redevelopment would have been possible, allowing for work to be done with tenants still in place.

City Attorney Charles Harball said at the Feb. 7 meeting that he didn’t believe that the city could legally impose such conditions. He suggested that if the council wanted to stop this from happening again, they could examine policy changes.

During the meetings, Johnson and council members expressed sympathy for the displaced tenants, but in a recent interview Johnson said that the council has not enacted any policy — or even held discussions — on how to mitigate the impact on future sales involving residents in similar living arrangements.

Johnson said in that same interview he thinks writing any new regulations would fall under the responsibility of state lawmakers.

“We haven’t looked at it. [Any changes in law] would have to come from the state government,” said Johnson.

Johnson said that the city has done all it can to increase housing supply in the city by slashing impact fees and changing water and sewer regulations.

Councilor Ryan Hunter said in a recent interview that new housing developments wouldn’t have helped many of the folks displaced in The Outlaw sale, or others with fixed or low incomes.

“Adding market rate apartments doesn’t help the folks at the lowest end,” said Hunter. “We need deed-restricted housing, and that requires city involvement.”*

Hunter would like to see the city work with developers to turn city-owned parking lots into affordable housing, although he has not received vocal support from other council members on the idea.

Tracy Diaz from CAP wants Council to implement policies that require developers to submit a relocation plan as part of the permit approval process in cases like this.

When CAP rebuilt the Courtyard Apartments, Diaz said the complex was renovated in phases so as to displace the fewest number of residents possible. CAP paid the tenants’ rent elsewhere during the construction period.

Hunter said he would support such measures, but doesn’t yet know exactly what conditions the city can legally require developers fulfill as part of the permit approval process.

“[If a proposed policy] was targeted to low-income people who are vulnerable to displacement and homelessness, I’d support it,” Hunter said.

Meanwhile, the hotel conversion isn’t much closer to becoming a reality – with Fortify project manager Cameron Wagar saying that the redevelopment is still in the architectural phase, with no date for construction in sight.

THE OUTLAW INN still sits abandoned, surrounded by chain link fence — hardly a better look than the blight many felt it had become while in business. Fortify would not confirm rent prices for the new units, and the displaced residents have not received any priority status to rent the apartments when – or if – they are completed.

The Corbins are optimistic. The family has signed leases that guarantee them another year and a half under Samaritan House’s roof. After that, they hope to get a spot in the shelter’s planned expansion.

The Corbins are thankful for the kindness they have been shown by Samaritan House staff and their community. The calm atmosphere and the security that comes with a real lease has provided the family with a peace of mind they never had at The Outlaw. They are now able to handle their medical appointments and errands more conveniently, they said. Stability feels like home.

“The last six months have been a blessing,” said Joan. “Very peaceful.”

Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or aknowler@dailyinterlake.com.

*This paragraph has been updated.

photo

The former FairBridge Inn, Suites & Outlaw Convention Center in Kalispell on Friday, Nov. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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