Repairs stave off evictions at Santa Rosa’s Gold Coin Motel eyed for housing project

Santa Rosa officials said they couldn’t ignore the substandard living conditions found at the hotel, but also didn’t want to order evictions that could have left even more local residents homeless.|

Most of those living at the Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa have been there for years, including several tenants who have stayed for decades.

For Tammy Bishop and her husband, Robert Fuller, the stay at the low-budget inn with roughly 50 rooms has lasted for 20 years.

Their room is opposite a popular Thai restaurant, which is owned and operated by the same family that owns the Mendocino Avenue hotel property. Bishop and Fuller, who also have worked as caretakers and cleaners at the Gold Coin, raised two sons at the motel near Steele Lane Elementary School - a neighborhood close to health care providers and next door to a Safeway.

Four weeks at the Gold Coin can run nearly $2,000, but for most of their time there, Bishop and Fuller have worked in exchange for rent. With seven or eight other long-term residents, they’ve built their own little community at the Gold Coin.

“Everybody’s like family,” Bishop said. “It’s not a bunch of stragglers that’s off the streets. We’ve been here for years, and we stick together.”

But this summer, a neighbor complained about the state of the property, spurring a city inspection that found widespread disrepair and squalid conditions. The motel’s rooms were so dilapidated, city officials said, that they deemed the Gold Coin uninhabitable. Residents were told they had a month to find new homes, leaving those like Bishop and Fuller fearing they’d be kicked to the curb as of this past Thursday.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Sonoma County, which is buying the Gold Coin but won’t take ownership until November, arranged for basic maintenance on the site’s occupied units earlier this month. The last-minute scramble has averted evictions for the time being. A city memo delivered to the property Tuesday, two days before the city’s deadline, informed residents that the order to leave had been indefinitely postponed.

St. Vincent, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit, aims to turn the property into permanent housing with services for formerly homeless and low-income residents. The reinvention is modeled on the Palms Inn on Santa Rosa Avenue, a former motel that now houses more than 100 ? formerly homeless people, including veterans, and provides case management services for occupants. The philosophy underpinning both projects is that homeless people first and foremost need a permanent, stable place to live, allowing them to then hold down a job, receive care for physical and mental health and address other issues that may be pushing them onto the streets.

The most recent estimate of Sonoma County’s homeless population ?put the total at nearly 3,000 individuals, most of whom live in Santa Rosa. The local rate of unsheltered homelessness - people living on sidewalks in cars, parks or abandoned buildings - in the city is among the highest nationwide, trailing only San Francisco and Los Angeles, according to a recent federal report.

Squalid conditions

Santa Rosa officials said the dilapidated state of the Gold Coin presented them with a dilemma. They couldn’t ignore the substandard living conditions found at the hotel, but also didn’t want to order evictions that could have left even more local residents homeless.

City Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, whose north Santa Rosa district includes the Gold Coin, compared the situation with the Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, a living quarters and performance venue that went up in flames in late 2016, killing 36 people. Victims’ relatives have alleged that Oakland failed to inspect the building to formally flag its interior labyrinth as a fire hazard.

“The reason why we’re cautious is we don’t want a Ghost Ship situation,” Fleming said. “We also don’t want to create any more homelessness in the city of Santa Rosa wherever possible.”

Residents and city officials said the property’s owner let many rooms fade into disrepair. For example, one unit with a hole in the roof has been unlivable because of substantial fire and roof damage.

Fuller said he still does maintenance at the site, long a magnet for police and emergency calls. The job has brought him face to face with the stark reality of life on the margins, including the bodies of a few tenants, who he understood to have died from overdoses or from old age, alone and unattended.

He said the owners’ willingness to keep up the property has waned of late. “The older they got, they kind of let it go,” he said.

‘Lack of maintenance’

Nahn Phetphadoung, who manages the Jhanthong Banbua restaurant and helps oversee the Gold Coin, said the property owner had been looking to sell the property and was in talks with another potential buyer besides St. Vincent.

“We were having to sell to another buyer beforehand, and we were not wanting to have to do any upgrades,” she said.

But a neighbor’s complaint in July about the motel’s crumbling roof, vermin and noise prompted Santa Rosa’s inspection, said Dave Gouin, the city’s housing and community services director.

After the inspection, the city issued a type of eviction notice, citing a “severe lack of maintenance,” visible rodent droppings, faulty wiring and a general sense of “visual blight” among the problems found by inspectors.

“The property owner isn’t stepping up to do the repairs,” Gouin said during a return trip to the property in early October. He visited with a city code enforcement official to re-inspect occupied units, with an eye toward figuring out whether they could be repaired sufficiently to be habitable.

The city’s Sept. 17 notice gave the property owner, Pimjai Thongslip, a month to either raise the standards of living at the Gold Coin or have everyone out. Residents said they were told numerous different dates by which they had to leave, were offered money to leave early and even faced threats of police action or having their power shut off. Meanwhile, the hotel stopped renting to one-night tenants.

Phetphadoung disputed the residents’ characterization of communication with renters as “threats,” saying that was “not true.”

“We were worried about having no place for them to go and were trying to find a place for them, but it’s hard to find a place,” she said. The Gold Coin didn’t want to flout the city’s order to fix up the property or close it down, she said.

“If the city has to make us close down, we’re trying to work with the city, too, and we don’t want to have to go against them,” Phetphadoung said, speaking on behalf of Thongslip, a retiree who splits her time between Santa Rosa and Thailand.

Nonprofit steps in

St. Vincent de Paul’s Gold Coin project has been spearheaded by its executive director, City Councilman Jack Tibbetts. After his efforts to secure the required sum for the purchase came up short, Thongslip agreed to lower her asking price.

“She was saying that it was a good deed and that it was helping the community,” Phetphadoung said.

Tibbetts has declined to comment publicly on the Gold Coin deal over the past few weeks, saying it would be inappropriate for him to make remarks that could be seen influencing or appraising actions by city or nonprofit staff in a deal that he’s overseen for St. Vincent.

Jim Nantell, vice president of the local St. Vincent de Paul organization, said that he understood from his days as city manager in Burlingame why Santa Rosa would look at the Gold Coin and see “life-safety” issues. He noted that the nonprofit planned to spend nearly $1.7 million to renovate the Gold Coin by fall 2020.

“We had a fair idea of the condition of the property and certainly are budgeting to make the necessary improvements to provide sustainable housing,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we really understood that the rooms were in a condition where the city was going to see they were no longer habitable.”

Nantell also said he was aware of three families who have been temporarily displaced and for whom the nonprofit has rented hotel rooms while it fixes up their Gold Coin units. The nonprofit has said it would not displace existing residents and will continue to house them at the Gold Coin as the property transitions from motel to housing for formerly homeless people.

St. Vincent de Paul won’t become the owner of the property until Nov. 1 at the earliest, so, it relied on some helping hands to do short-term work that staved off the evictions.

Repairs underway

Chris Grabill, a general contractor who has consulted for St. Vincent de Paul and a friend of Tibbetts’, volunteered to help repair the motel’s inhabited rooms.

During a break last week, Grabill dined at the Jhanthong Banbua restaurant on the front of the property. His eyes narrowed as he looked up from the table to see a tree precariously hanging over a motel room - yet another project.

The repair effort, with help from Fuller, is far from over, Grabill said. Early steps have included closing off open wiring and installing carbon monoxide detectors.

“Things are looking good, even though it’s been a bad situation for a long time here,” Grabill said.

Nantell noted that some of the remaining Gold Coin residents had struggled with homelessness before, saying that “those are the kinds of people that we want to be able to help.”

Kim Hughes, a Gold Coin resident since 2017, said she had been homeless for years, starting when she ran away from home as a teenager. Finding a room at the motel and holding down a graveyard shift at a call answering service had given her some much-needed stability - and a reason to stick around despite the recent concerns about eviction.

“It took me a long time to get my head out of my ass,” Hughes said. “There’s no way I could go down without a fight.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports.

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