EVERETT — Ever since she took over as manager earlier this year, Emily Simpson has poured her energy into transforming the Waits Motel.
It’s her home, too.
Residents say the 24-room motel at 1301 Lombard Ave., long known as a problem spot for neighbors and emergency responders, has changed dramatically for the better. Simpson was even in the process of buying it.
Now, Simpson’s efforts could be for naught.
State law allows cities to condemn properties if they haven’t been lawfully occupied for at least a year, constitute a threat to public health or have been associated with illegal drug activity. Two of these three factors must be present to consider condemnation.
It would be the city’s first condemnation through the blight statute, city spokesperson Simone Tarver said.
“The Waits Motel is a property constituting a threat to the public health, safety or welfare…,” Franklin wrote July 6, citing crime data, public calls to 911 and code violations, including four rooms contaminated by fentanyl and methamphetamine.
If approved, the city would buy the property, demolish the building and look for a developer to build residential housing there.
The city’s move left Simpson “heartbroken.” She was unaware condemnation was in the works until it was announced publicly this week, she said.
Simpson and her husband, Doug Modig, had been looking into buying the motel. It’s personal for Simpson, who lives on the property. As the motel’s manager, she’s spent time helping guests who need extra support. She’s walked people to nearby Providence hospital herself, she said.
The motel is at a “turning point,” Simpson said Monday.
‘I can’t live among this’
The stretch of Broadway near where the Waits Motel is located was once called “Everett’s dirty little secret.” The neighborhood’s reputation for drug dealing and sex work stretches back decades and those issues long plagued the motel.
“Last year it was completely horrendous, horrible,” said Carla, a Waits resident for the past 6½ years. “I couldn’t even sit outside my door and smoke a cigarette without being harassed about drugs.”
Carla declined to give her last name because she worried others would judge her for living in a motel.
She said she would get hit with fentanyl smoke whenever she walked outside.
Simpson took over as manager in March because she’d been looking for an affordable place to live and thought the position would give her time to work her other jobs at a local security firm and the RV repair company she co-owns with her husband.
Instead, she found the motel “out of control” with drug activity.
The motel has a sensor that sounds an alert every time someone enters the parking lot. In the beginning, she couldn’t sleep because it was going off nonstop all night.
“I can’t live among this,” she thought.
So she worked to change the motel.
The police helped by telling an alleged drug dealer to leave the property, Simpson said. Other drug activity seemed to be deterred by the security car parked outside, as well as the county health department marking rooms in need of testing for fentanyl and methamphetamine contamination.
The health department identified four rooms for potential fentanyl and meth contamination in March, which testing confirmed the following month. Health officials prohibited use of those rooms until they were decontaminated.
Simpson said on Tuesday the rooms have been decontaminated and were awaiting inspection from the health department.
The couple made other changes, too. Modig volunteered to do maintenance and repair work in the rooms, fixing broken heaters and changing out lights, among other jobs.
Simpson and Modig renovated one of the more run-down rooms, giving it a fresh coat of paint, different blinds and new linens.
Simpson also started a community garden out back.
Still, managing the motel requires constant vigilance.
“You have to wake up at 2 a.m. and just shoot out of bed … check out what’s going on,” she said. “You have to be super consistent.”
That hasn’t been necessary lately, she said, “but I am willing to do it if I hear it.”
Simpson’s employer provides private security for the motel.
The current owner is Medhat Said, who was reluctant to talk about past issues at the motel in an interview with The Daily Herald.
Now, he said, “we are trying to make everybody happy.”
‘What it was like to walk literally half a block’
City leaders know Simpson and others have sought to buy the motel, Tarver wrote in an email.
“We are aware there may be others interested in the property, but ownership change alone would not address the concerns,” Tarver wrote. “The Waits Motel has been a concern for decades and in that time, there have been changes in ownership. Yet, there still continued to be significant issues, including violent crime and drug activity.”
The property last sold for $2.3 million in 2021, county property records show. The previous owner bought it in 2017.
During inspections in February, the Everett Fire Department found violations including a missing manual pull fire alarm and three broken smoke alarms. Later in the month, a state Department of Health inspector was given access to only one room and found multiple violations including no smoke detector.
Simpson and Modig said all smoke detectors are now in complaince with city code.
Everett police responded to 236 dispatch calls at the motel between March 2022 and June 1, 2023. Most of the calls came through 911, and 65 were initiated by police officers, according to city data.
Police responded to assaults, drive-by shootings, robberies and drug use, but the vast majority of the calls were for suspicious activity and other nuisance issues.
However, 911 calls decreased significantly when Simpson took over. Last year, there were 147 calls at the motel. More than six months into this year, there have been only 47, according to police. Over half of those calls happened before March.
For neighbors like Kate McFarlane, Simpson has made a big difference. McFarlane has lived in a house across the street from the motel for almost two years and has co-owned her property for 20.
The area didn’t feel safe before, she said. She remembered walking to a nearby 7-Eleven with her keys between her fingers as a weapon to protect herself.
“That’s what it was like to walk literally half a block,” she said.
After Simpson moved in, the two hit it off when McFarlane gave her a tomato plant.
There was a shift once the management changed, she said. Gone were the cars filling the motel’s parking lot and the sounds of yelling she heard from across the street.
She feels safer walking outside now.
The neighbors have been “the biggest supporters for me,” Simpson said.
‘We’re all on hard times’
Volunteers from Out of the Valley Church are another major source of support.
Church members Gail Gabbard, Cyndi Pa and Janelle Burke lead a group of volunteers who feed homeless people in Everett at least once a week.
The Waits was one of Gabbard’s and Pa’s regular spots before Simpson took over. Under the new manager, the group can enter the parking lot rather than sticking to the surrounding alley and streets.
They bring food, clothes, cleaning supplies and more.
Volunteers spend their own money at times on the things they give out, but much of it comes from donations. Sometimes Simpson asks for specific necessities for people in the motel.
Decades ago, Gabbard lived in the motel for several months. It’s a better place now, she said.
Volunteering there is “like a mission,” Burke said. “We’re all on hard times, we’re supposed to support each other. Emily’s doing that right now.”
The motel was a dangerous place a year ago, Carla said, with two shootings within 24 hours. She feared for her safety most of the time.
“Emily completely flipped this place,” she said.
Some neighbors aren’t convinced.
Holly James, chair of the Northwest Neighborhood Association, told the City Council in February about seeing drug deals and garbage around the motel, as well as an increase in car break-ins and thefts. An incident where a man pointed a BB gun at children put people on edge.
“I think the neighborhood is just really anxious about it,” James said. “Nobody likes to hear gunfire.”
If the city pursues condemnation, the property would get an independent appraisal. The council first needs to approve a resolution Wednesday before voting on the ordinance Aug. 2.
It’s unclear what condemnation would mean for the motel’s 10 long-term residents.
Tracy has been living in the motel for two years. He declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation.
Like Carla, he spoke highly of Simpson’s management. The motel, once “unrestful,” is now “peaceful, quiet,” Tracy said.
“Whatever we need, we can get.”