An asylum seeker asks the Kent City Council during its June 18 meeting to help reopen the former Econo Lodge. SCREENSHOT, Kent City Council video

An asylum seeker asks the Kent City Council during its June 18 meeting to help reopen the former Econo Lodge. SCREENSHOT, Kent City Council video

Asylum seekers again ask for former Kent Econo Lodge to be reopened

Several testify at Kent City Council meeting; but King County has no plans to open hotel

Asylum seekers camping on property next to the closed Econ Lodge peppered the Kent City Council for the second consecutive meeting with requests to allow them to move into the hotel.

“We have nowhere to go,” one speaker said during the public comment period of the June 18 meeting at City Hall.

“We are coming from Venezuela and Angola,” another speaker said. “We’ve been camping more than three weeks next to the (former) Econo Lodge. A lot of people have told us they wish they’d open the hotel.”

But wishes and reality are far apart with any potential to reopen the hotel at 1233 Central Ave. N., near Highway 167.

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph explained prior to allowing public comment, just as she did at the June 4 meeting when many asylum seekers and their supporters spoke, that the property is under control of King County and not the city.

“The city of Kent does not own or control the property in question, the hotel or the adjacent property,” Ralph said.

Ralph added the county hasn’t applied for a permit to reopen the hotel. She said neither the county nor South King County cities have the resources to provide housing.

“It’s appropriate for the federal government or the state to step in,” said Ralph, who added mayors from nine cities met with Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month to discuss monies the state plans to release to fund housing but that specifics of where that money will go remains to be determined.

Asylum seekers first approached the City Council at an April meeting to ask that the Econo Lodge be reopened. They have bounced around from hotel to hotel, including the Kent Quality Inn, as private donations covered lodging bills. But that money has run out, leaving about 150 of them living outside in tents next to the Econo Lodge.

County to keep hotel closed

King County doesn’t have any plans to reopen the hotel. The county purchased the hotel in 2020 to serve as a COVID-19 quarantine facility. City and county officials signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that limited the use of the building as a quarantine or isolation facility.

“We understand the difficulty in meeting the housing needs of asylum seekers who are newly arriving here in King County, and it is important to put this in the context of the regional housing crisis we are currently in,” said Amy Enbysk, spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine, in a June 21 email to the Kent Reporter. “The need in our region continues to grow. Right now, over 9,800 people sleep outside in King County every night. This existing crisis has strained available regional shelter and service capacity.”

Enbysk said the county has a legal agreement at the request of the city of Kent not to use the former Econo Lodge property for anything other than the purpose of isolation and quarantine or other city-authorized uses.

“Therefore, we must abide by that and are not actively pursuing this property as a possible shelter,” Enbysk said.

Even a change in the agreement with the city wouldn’t lead to reopening the hotel because of funding challenges facing the county.

“We understand the rationale for the request by asylee seekers to use the hotel in the short term, but the reality of doing so is much more complicated than simply unlocking the doors and turning on the lights,” Enbysk said. “And given the limits of the permissible uses at this site based on our legal agreement with the city of Kent, we have not completed a full assessment. However, we know that full operations and capital for an emergency shelter, even in the short term, are beyond the county’s available resources.”

Asylum seekers and their supporters also have testified since the start of the year in front of county leaders and the Seattle City Council in an effort to find housing, which led to stays at hotels in Kent and SeaTac, mostly paid for by private donations, but those funds have run out.

King County government funds also have been spent.

“We have exhausted all available funding to assist the immediate needs of asylee seekers at the Kent location and elsewhere in the county,” Enbysk said. “King County began responding to the emerging need in November of last year and was the first government entity to resource short-term housing options, which included $3 million in funding to retain a service provider that has worked to house over 350 individuals and families. King County awarded four nonprofits $2 million in grant funding in April. We will continue our work with these organizations to do outreach to asylees in the area.”

Neither the King County Sheriff’s Office nor the Kent Police plan to remove people from the encampment. Kent Police issued a statement shortly after campers moved onto the property that officers would not remove anyone unless the Sheriff’s Office participated. A Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said deputies would not take action to remove anyone.

Encampment challenges

Meanwhile, the asylum seekers face challengers of their own at the Kent encampment as they await legal status and work permits after fleeing hardships in their countries and crossing the border into the United States.

A speaker told the Kent City Council that people showed up at the encampment wanting them to leave and threatened to return with firearms.

“We have families, and folks are coming to us and threatening us,” the man said. “We’ve already suffered this type of persecution in our home countries. …you should help us. Being threatened for asking for housing, that’s very unfair.”

The Venezuelan migrants traveled to the United States to seek asylum. They emigrated due to ongoing economic and political turmoil, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The migrants came to Washington because it is a sanctuary state, meaning it supports undocumented immigrants. They first stayed at the Riverton United Methodist Church in Tukwila, but moved to the Kent hotel in January after the church became overcrowded and a nonprofit initially paid for them to stay in Kent.

Some have found housing.

Jon Grant, chief strategy officer for the Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute, a nonprofit affordable housing provider, told the council his group found housing in Tacoma for 105 asylum seekers after they were evicted from the Kent Quality Inn.

Grant said he agreed the city needs help and it’s a regional issue, but he encouraged city leaders to issue a permit to reopen the hotel. He said his group has helped reopen other hotels and would do the same in Kent.

But asylum seekers staying at the Kent encampment remain without housing.

“We must end the rolling evictions,” said a Kent resident in support of reopening the Econo Lodge.

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An asylum seeker, camping on property next to the former Econo Lodge, asks the Kent City Council for housing support during its June 18 meeting. SCREENSHOT, Kent City Council video

An asylum seeker, camping on property next to the former Econo Lodge, asks the Kent City Council for housing support during its June 18 meeting. SCREENSHOT, Kent City Council video

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