Motel living with six kids and a maid-hating cocker

Living in a Reno motel with six kids is a kick. For about a week. And I’m talking poolside room with daily maid service—compliments of the employer that moved my family to this friendly gambling community at the foot of the Sierra.

We arrived, 12 years ago, on a Sunday in July, driving from Salt Lake City, where we’d lived almost two years. Reno wasn’t what I’d expected. The landscape seemed gentle and furry compared with the rugged fury of Utah’s Wasatch Front.

“They call these mountains?” I said, eyeing Peavine as we chugged into town on Interstate 80. Heresy, I know.

We unloaded furniture, books and a computer into a storage unit and checked into the Motel 6 on Wells Avenue. It was the cheapest place I could find that allowed pets like our 8-pound cocker spaniel, Sugar.

The motel’s biggest draw was a pool that turned our motel stay into kind of a vacation.

The Motel 6 didn’t have kitchenettes. We kept milk in a cooler and lugged in our microwave. The closet served as food pantry, with cereal, bread, cans of Spaghetti-Os, peanut butter and jelly. I washed dishes in the bathroom sink, and we took turns eating at a bistro-size table. With electricity, running water and a roof over our heads, it was far more comfy than tent-camping.

A week later, we had to move out. All the rooms at the Motel 6 were booked a year in advance for some big deal called Hot August Nights. Woo-hoo.

We packed clothes, microwave and food into our storage unit, checked Sugar into a kennel and moved to Lake Tahoe for the weekend. Yeah, I know. The horror.

For dozens of families living in Reno-area motels, special events are housing disasters. The same motel that craved your business during off-season doesn’t want you around when tourists show up. What’re you gonna do? Live in your car, most likely.

Our ability to pay for a Tahoe stay was just one advantage we had over most motel-dwelling families. My college-graduate husband also had a job that would eventually pay a living wage. And we were going to buy a house. We thought.

The four-bedroom we’d rented in Salt Lake City, priced around $40,000, hadn’t sold during the two years we lived there. We expected to pay a bit more for a home in Reno. Maybe $60,000, even $75,000—for something nice.

Our first Reno house-hunting trek had me in tears. Nothing under $100,000. And even for a hundred grand, we couldn’t find a place I wanted to live in. We drove through dismal neighborhoods, past small, ugly dwellings.

Our motel stay lengthened. After a month, no one wanted to swim. We tired of canned pasta and dinners at Denny’s. I developed oven-lust.

Our attack-spaniel hated the maids. She’d growl and bare tiny fangs at Lysol-wielding intruders—then dash out the door to safety. Once we returned after church to find our pooch hiding under a car in the parking lot.

My husband worked rotating shifts. It was hard for him to sleep during the daytime in the motel room while I tried to keep a half-dozen kids, ages 2 to 14, quiet for eight hours. “Shh. Daddy’s trying to sleep.”

We’d no business complaining about a relatively cushy two-month stay in the Motel 6, though. We knew it would be short-lived. We didn’t have to work minimum-wage jobs to keep our noses above the rising tide, didn’t need to fear medical bills or lost days of work due to illness. We didn’t face an indefinite future of eating microwaved dinners in our beds.

These days, rising rents and home prices coupled with less government funding for affordable housing (see cover story) will likely mean more families seeking temporary shelter in motels.

Hard-working Reno families should have a chance at something better.