Leaving the Comstock

Some called it a flophouse. For others the now-closed downtown hotel was an ever-so-humble home.

Before moving out of the Comstock Hotel last week, Melissa Cartagena, her boyfriend and three kids had no idea where they were going to go. Baby Zach, center, is also pictured on the cover.

Before moving out of the Comstock Hotel last week, Melissa Cartagena, her boyfriend and three kids had no idea where they were going to go. Baby Zach, center, is also pictured on the cover.

Photo By David Robert

The Interfaith Hospitality Network needs volunteers to hang out with families during the daytime, especially on Saturdays. Call 284-5566. Project Restart needs hygiene kits with soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, razor, shaving cream, etc., to pass out to adults looking for jobs. Call 324-5166.

A planned three-week stay at the Comstock Hotel & Apartments would have been plenty for the family of five. Living in downtown Reno gave Melissa Cartagena, her boyfriend and three kids a glimpse of the seedier side of life.

“I saw more uniformed police officers in my first week here than I have in my entire life,” she said.

The family’s three weeks stretched into six months. On Monday, the family finally moved out, but only because they had to. The Comstock was closing for an overhaul, a renovation from a weekly 300-unit hotel into some 130 condominiums.

During an interview last week, before she moved out of the hotel, Cartagena didn’t know where she’d stay.

“We’ll probably bounce around from here to there, wherever we can find a room,” she said.

Not that it will be hard, said the round-faced mom, to leave the hotel that’s long been seen by law enforcement officials and neighbors as a crime-ridden “flophouse.”

“I’ve never lived in a multi-family dwelling,” Cartagena said, pulling her baby, Zach, up off the stained carpet in the Comstock’s common dining area. “And with kids, this is tough, living here with the drug users and the drug dealers, with cops going in and out and the fire alarms going off. It hasn’t been a pleasant experience.”

Cartagena, 31, didn’t have much choice when it came to finding a temporary place to stay. “If you have money—and you don’t have a family or kids, it’s not a problem,” she said. “There are plenty of beds out there for singles.”

Much of the area’s housing for a family of five is too expensive for Cartagena, who works as a Players’ Club supervisor at Boomtown.

Cartagena grew up here, went to Reed High in Sparks and now takes classes at the University of Phoenix. She’d like to earn a degree in criminal justice.

While at the hotel, her daughters, ages 11 and 14, were riding a bus for about three hours a day to get from downtown to their schools in the North Valleys.

At $99 per week, the Comstock seemed a bargain.

“The Comstock was the only place I could find that had two beds,” she said. “Not two bedrooms, just two beds. All five of us are in one room.”

While they waited for their own home—a trailer in Lemmon Valley—to be ready, the family made the best of their stay. Then in April, along with every resident of the Comstock, they received a no-fault eviction notice. The property had been purchased, and everyone had to clear out.

With a week to go before the eviction deadline, it seemed to Cartagena that the Comstock’s management was actively trying to get people to move.

Though she’d paid rent through May 17, Cartagena was locked out of her room after her swing shift ended on May 11. Security guards weren’t able, she said, to open her door. She drove back to Boomtown to spend the night. Baby Zach didn’t get his nighttime medicine.

She was able to get back in her room the next morning. But not with a key. The hotel had also stopped giving its customers keys—cards to swipe in the locks on each room. Instead, security guards had to escort guests to their rooms and let them in.

Comstock manager Susan Danforth said no one at the hotel was trying to force people to move out before May 17. The machine that makes room keys out of magnetized cards had been on the fritz for years. When it finally broke down, rather than spend $14,000 to replace it, the owners decided to hire a few more security guards to open the doors for guests. The new owners wouldn’t be needing a hotel door key system for their condominiums.

Cartagena thought she should have a key to the room she paid for.

“I was never, ever late with rent, not even once,” she said.

Even with around 300 rooms rented out at $99 a week, the Comstock didn’t qualify as affordable housing for families. At best, it was “emergency transitional family housing,” the label given to hotel/motel living by the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless.

“The fact is that there’s a shortage of affordable housing for people who need it,” said Melanie Denny, director of Project Restart, a member agency of RAAH. The agency offers an array of services for the homeless, from showers and substance abuse programs to skills classes and even occasional one-time rent or mortgage assistance to help families keep the homes they’re living in.

This costs a fraction of what it takes to help a family who’s already on the streets.

“What you want to do is keep people in affordable housing,” Denny said. “It’s more cost effective than waiting until they need emergency shelter.”

Unfortunately, far too many families are applying for assistance these days. Project Restart is able to help only 3 to 6 percent of those families and senior citizens who come to the agency looking for help.

Things may get much worse.

The federal government has been systematically reducing and freezing low-income housing assistance in the form of Section 8 rent vouchers. Advocates for affordable housing are hard at work writing their representatives in Congress, fighting a Bush administration proposal for even more Section 8 cuts.

In 2005, Reno’s housing assistance programs could lose $1.6 million in voucher subsidies that help families pay for existing affordable housing. By 2009, the cuts could add up to $4.3 million of lost voucher money for the Reno area, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Denny predicted these cuts would cause a disastrous ripple effect in the community.

Families relying on Section 8 housing vouchers would be unable to pay rent. So even more families would call Project Restart for assistance. And, inevitably, more families would be on the streets, seeking emergency shelter.

Factor in the rising costs of homes in the Reno-Sparks area—and corresponding rent increases—and you’ve got a real crisis for the Truckee Meadows.

“Homeowners are happy,” Denny said. “We’ve made a lot of money. But some of those who might have been able to afford homes are now priced out of the market.”

Cartagena expected it would take about three weeks to move her double-wide trailer from a rental site to land she purchased in Lemmon Valley. In November, the family moved into a room with two double beds on the Comstock’s fifth floor.

Signs were posted on doors, and residents of the Comstock Hotel were locked out of their rooms, only able to get back in with the help of security guard escorts.

Photo By David Robert

But the trailer was damaged in the move. When the trailer was finally fixed and reassembled, the two segments didn’t fit together evenly. They had to be pulled apart and realigned once again.

If the family had plenty of money to invest, the moving process would have been simpler. But they’ve had to fight the moving company. They’ve applied for a grant to help with trailer repairs. And now they’re involved in a lawsuit to recover some of the money lost in the process.

“We hope it’ll be done at the end of this month,” Cartagena said. “We’re always saying, ‘The end of the month,’ but which month? … [My kids] don’t think it will ever happen.”

While she talked, Zach toddled off over the stained, grubby carpet. Strips of textured paint were peeling from the ceiling. A sign above the duct-taped Comstock door handle announced that the hotel is no longer renting rooms.

During her hotel stay, Cartagena cooked meals on a small two-burner stove. It was impossible, she said, to boil water for spaghetti and cook meat for sauce at the same time.

A mini-refrigerator held a couple gallons of milk and some veggies.

“It freezes everything,” Cartagena said of the fridge. “And we pay extra for this.”

Refrigerator rent was $5 a week. Cartagena planned on daily shopping trips.

The cops were there almost every night. Fire alarms went off so frequently that residents barely paid attention to them. During one alarm, the family raced down five flights of stairs only to find the Comstock’s doors locked. Carrying the baby, Cartagena climbed back up three flights of stairs, then down again to another exit—one that wasn’t locked.

Good thing it wasn’t an actual fire.

Just before the Comstock was sold to the Los Angeles real-estate developer who plans the hotel’s renovation, Cartagena received a letter notifying her that a sex offender was taking up residence.

“A child rapist was moving in!” she said.

Not that her daughters were allowed to roam the Comstock’s halls by themselves. “We keep a low profile,” Cartagena said. “They’re not allowed to hang out in the building, unless it’s with people we know.”

Between rising rents and fewer Section 8 vouchers, the affordable-housing situation in Reno is worse than it has ever been, said Ann-Mary MacLeod, director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network. The organization relies on area synagogues and churches to provide emergency housing for families in need. The group helps about 14 people at a time and boasts that more than two-thirds of those leaving the program end up in permanent housing.

“And 76 percent of the adults left employed, which is pretty darn good,” MacLeod said. “Though we’re hoping to increase that.”

Sometimes it seems like the group isn’t making enough of a dent. Many families call, seeking help. Some don’t qualify either because they don’t have children under 18 or because a family member has a substance abuse problem or mental illness. The Interfaith volunteers don’t have the necessary backgrounds to help these people.

Of those who qualify for IHN’s help, only a small fraction ever makes it into the program.

MacLeod is optimistic about the future. A planned facility that centralizes services for the homeless seeking help in the Reno area would alleviate much of the emergency shelter strain.

“When the new shelter is finally built, there’ll be a place for folks,” she said. “Right now there isn’t much—three days at the [Reno-Sparks] Gospel Mission, and then they have to start paying.”

Some former Comstock residents had less trouble finding new digs.

A week before the deadline for moving out, a sharply dressed 60-year-old checked in to the Speakeasy Hotel on East Sixth Street. As hotel staff made arrangements to move Renato Delacruz’s furniture from the Comstock to his new room in the Speakeasy, Delacruz surveyed the Speakeasy’s lobby happily. The hotel’s recently renovated interior has a swank Roaring ‘20s look, complete with art-nouveau transparencies on the windows, an espresso bar and a plush cocktail lounge.

It was hard, but not very hard, to find a place to live, Delacruz said. Brochures for the Speakeasy and another property held by the same owners, the Lake Street Hotel, were left at the Comstock’s front desk.

“I saw the Speaking-easy,” Delacruz said, laughing at his pun. “They speak easy. … It’s very beautiful. And very expensive.”

Delacruz, who works as a line cook at the Eldorado, said that his rent now will absorb his entire monthly paycheck. But, he added, it’s worth it. His wife, who lives in the Bay Area, comes to visit on the weekends. And she loves the new look of the Speakeasy.

“My wife is always the boss,” Delacruz said.

Will he have enough money left over for food?

“What do I need to eat?” Delacruz said. “I’m a cook. I can cook for myself.”

Lest anyone think that the Speakeasy’s looking for business from former Comstock residents, owner Kristi Giudici was quick to put that notion to rest.

“We want it to be clear that we’re not taking folks from the Comstock,” she said. “We’re a hotel where people check in by the day. We’re picky about the people we have.”

Though the hotel does have a few extended-stay rooms, Giudici said those are reserved for senior citizens, bowlers who are in town until July or construction workers on the ReTRAC trench project.

The Comstock’s reputation may have other motel and hotel owners worried.

“I think a lot of people are going to be afraid to take them, there’s been such bad publicity,” Giudici said. “We worked really hard to keep this area clean of drug trafficking and prostitution.”

In recent years, around $4.2 million has been pumped into the Speakeasy property, located at the corner of East Sixth and Lake streets, and its 15,000-square-foot convention center, where such events as arm-wrestling and volleyball tournaments take place.

“It’s been remodeled, and everything’s new and nice,” Giudici said. “We’re trying to be an event-driven hotel. We’re not an apartment complex. We’re a hotel for nightlies, for tourists.”

Melissa Cartagena owns a double-wide trailer on which costly repairs must be made before her family can move in. Her 11-year-old daughter doesn’t think the family will ever make it into the trailer.

Photo By David Robert

Sure enough, two days later a caller looking for weekly senior-citizen rates was told that the Speakeasy doesn’t rent rooms by the week. Weeknights at the hotel run around $29 per night, a front deskman said. But on the weekends, that rate goes up—a lot.

The man’s voice turned discouraging.

“It’s in the hundreds,” he said.

“Per night?”

“Yes, on the weekends.”

“No weeklies? No senior discounts?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

As of last Thursday, about 70 units in the COMSTOCK were still occupied, said manager Danforth. People were moving out daily. Danforth, who’s worked there nearly three years, predicted last week that a few residents might not leave on Monday.

“I imagine there’s going to be a couple that I’ll have to take to court,” she said. “The new owners are expecting that there’ll be a couple of tagalongs.”

Otherwise, the exodus was smooth.

“People’s attitudes are real good,” she said. “There’s been no harassment or anything. … Some have lived here for around three years. It’s sad for them to leave, and it’s sad for us to see them go.”

The renovation is a welcome event in terms of downtown Reno redevelopment.

“They’ve been working on a model here, on the casino floor, and it’s really nice,” Danforth said.

As far as the Comstock’s troubles with drugs and prostitution over the past few years, Danforth said the blame isn’t rightly ascribed solely to the Comstock building.

“There are troubles everywhere,” she said. “Unfortunately, people who rent have more laws behind them. Just because you suspect somebody’s doing drugs, you can’t refuse to rent to them. Tenants have a lot of rights.

“Sometimes, we ended up with rough people. There were some wonderful people, too.”

In Reno, affordable-housing woes aren’t LIMITED TO single parents raising kids on one paycheck.

“Here, we see intact families—a husband, wife and kids—who can’t afford to make it on their own,” said Melanie Denny at Project Restart.

As long as all goes well, two adults making a bit more than the minimum wage can get by paying rent and bills in Reno. But even small emergencies, like an illness that lasts a few days or a kid who gets hurt, can spell a financial emergency.

These families can’t afford even a couple of missed work days with no sick leave or an unexpected doctor bill. Chances are the family’s not insured, Denny said, referring to recent statistics that ranked Nevada No. 4 among states with the most uninsured residents.

So the family can’t make rent. Mom, Dad and kids find themselves living with friends, living out of their car or checking into a weekly motel or hotel.

“With the lack of a safety net, that becomes the only option, which is sad,” Denny said. “It’s certainly not how we would like to see families housed. … Is a motel room a place where they can have a family meal? Where kids can feel rootedness and a sense of home?”

Project Restart helps house about 400 people per month. Most clients are considered situationally homeless, victims of circumstance.

Some people she’s talked with have a scathing attitude toward the homeless, Denny said, and it’s often assumed that these individuals are lazy and don’t want to work.

“That’s not what it’s about,” Denny said. “I tell them to come on down here and see what this is really about. Let’s work to resolve the issue. For the most part, people who are homeless are trying to do something about it. … They need a hand up, not a hand-out.”

She tells the story of a trucker who was diagnosed with lymphoma. His wife had never worked outside the home. She took care of their three children and was pregnant with No. 4 when her husband’s cancer was discovered.

While the trucker was undergoing radiation treatment, his employer fired him.

Project Restart helped that family pay its bills for several months until they received a Section 8 voucher to help with rent. The agency also lined up counseling services for the family to help them deal with their husband and father’s eventual death.

Without Restart’s help, the mother of four might have lost her husband and home all at once.

“It’s really a tragedy when a family is stressed to the wire with medical issues and then also loses their housing,” Denny said.

Baby Zach pounded on a player piano in the Comstock. His mom planned to take him to the doctor, as it was her day off. His ear was oozing fluid, and she worried that something might have bitten him.

Cartagena pulled up the cuffs of her sweat pants to show bug bites on her shin.

Given medical bills and the costs of raising kids, Cartagena feels lucky. She owns her own trailer and, eventually, she’ll be able to move in. She doesn’t have to save up money for rent and a security deposit.

“With the price of housing going through the roof? If I had to go out and rent a home big enough for all of us, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Still, it’s been a frustrating six months.

“I’m just kind of disappointed that Zach spent his first Christmas here, his first birthday and another Easter here," she said, hoisting her son to her hip. Blue-eyed Zach stared at his mom, red lips pinched together, unsmiling. "In a hotel room. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, huh, Zach? Christmas should have been at home, with a big tree."