by Anjeanette Damon, photography by David Calvert, special to ProPublica
Life at the Castaway Inn had never been quiet, exactly. Sitting among dive bars and liquor stores on the western edge of downtown Reno, the 46-room motel that rented by the week had become a permanent home for dozens of residents who had nowhere else to go.
But on a hot afternoon in September, a different kind of bustle had taken over the parking lot. Tenants carried trash and old furniture out of their rooms. Their belongings were stacked in the walkways: a broken refrigerator, old mattresses, a toaster oven, a curio cabinet.
Nail guns fired and saws buzzed as crews boarded up empty units.
Three weeks earlier, an out-of-town casino owner, Jeffrey Jacobs, had bought the Castaway Inn and the 7/11 Motor Lodge half a block away. He had already pulled demolition permits for both buildings. The people living there had to go.
Jacobs has spent the past five years buying property around two casinos he has purchased in downtown Reno. Promising to build a $1.8 billion entertainment district, he has displaced hundreds of residents from motels that served as housing of last resort for people with extremely low incomes.
By the time he bought the Castaway and 7/11, Jacobs had already cleared the land of 14 such motels, which he refers to as “slums.” He has made little progress building the promised hotels, restaurants and condo buildings that may one day make up his entertainment district. To spur Jacobs’ redevelopment efforts, the Reno City Council has approved financial incentives and regulatory relief. But no city policies exist to deter housing demolition, require the replacement of lost units or provide outreach and assistance to those about to be displaced.
On that day in September, Ross, a retired maintenance worker who didn’t want to give his last name, watched the activity through the open door of Unit 21. Ross had been living in motels for the past 20 years. The previous motel he lived at was bought for redevelopment in 2019. “They gave us all $1,800 and told us to leave,” he said.
That’s how Ross wound up at the Castaway, one of the city’s most derelict motels.
Reno’s motels were built in the 1950s and ’60s as rest stops for travelers on the famed Lincoln Highway; a faded pink sign with palm fronds and seagulls still serves as a reminder of the Castaway’s history as a vacation spot. After the highway was made obsolete by an interstate and the motels by high-rise hotels, the motels became a fallback for people who couldn’t find other housing. An estimated 2,550 people now live in more than 50 motels, mostly in downtown Reno.
While some motels are inexpensive, others aren’t always the cheapest option — at some, rent is north of $1,000 a month — but they are easy to get into. They don’t require a deposit or first and last month’s rent. They don’t care about bad credit or past evictions. Power, water, cable television and even Wi-Fi is usually included in the rent. But many have deteriorated into abominable conditions despite city efforts to force owners to clean them up.
When he buys a motel, Jacobs spends money to relocate the tenants. He claims his relocation efforts land the residents in better living situations.
Kelli Wilson, Jacobs’ property manager, “takes great pride in her efforts to relocate tenants in a manner that improves the quality of life for tenants who were living in slum motels when we acquired them,” Jacobs said in a written response to ProPublica after refusing an in-person interview. “The only tenants who were not assisted were those who continuously broke the code of conduct requirements that all tenants are required to agree to when we acquire various slum motels.”
ProPublica spent two months talking to people displaced from the motels to see if this was the case. Some people had indeed lived in terrible conditions. But not everyone ended up in a better place. And when they were forced to move, they were separated from neighbors, losing their communities and support networks. When Jacobs bought a motel, he threw the lives of already vulnerable people into chaos.
Such was the scene unfolding at the Castaway that day in September.
The air inside Ross’ room at the Castaway was stifling, so he kept the door propped open. Not a breeze was to be had as temperatures outside reached 96 degrees. Wearing black-rimmed glasses and no shirt, Ross sat with his face inches from the television. The neighbor’s dog, Cassie, lay tethered outside, too resigned to the heat to do more than raise its brow when strangers approached.
Security guards chased off anyone who didn’t live at the motel, threatening to call the police when a reporter arrived to talk to residents. Ross’ room was close to the edge of the property, allowing the reporter to chat with him from the sidewalk under the watchful eyes of a bearded security guard.
Ross put his head in his hands. “I want a place like here, a motel with a room,” he said. “I gotta find a motel. I don’t know where there are any.”
Conditions at the Castaway matched the descriptions of squalor that Jacobs uses — and city council members echo — to justify demolishing motels. Roaches crawled across the walls of Ross’ room. A neighbor’s shattered window was taped together. Huge mice bold enough to chase people crawled through cabinets.
“The mice were crazy,” said Rae-Rae Walter, who lived at the motel until Jacobs bought it. “If you got anywhere near the cupboard, they would suicide bomb dive at you. I had one jump straight off the shelf at me.”
Walter described the motel as “the Castaway, home of Reno’s castaways.”
When she learned Jacobs had bought it, she packed up and moved into her car. She wasn’t going to see what assistance might come her way. It was time to move on.
“At least I got a car, even if it’s old and does weird stuff,” she said of the gray sedan that sometimes stalls when she uses the turn signal.
Walter’s friend Niki Kaufman worked as a maid for the Castaway’s previous owner. He paid her $5 a room, sometimes in cash, sometimes in dinner and cigarettes. She described scraping a varnish of roach dung from the walls before scrubbing them. Her work provided her with a room to live in.
Now, Kaufman no longer had a job. Nor was she considered a tenant deserving of relocation assistance, she said. Her plan was to sleep along the river. She said that she had found a good place for her hammock. She had slept there the night before. When her situation was brought to Jacobs’ attention by ProPublica, he said she should contact Wilson if she needed help.
The Castaway’s demolition means its residents won’t be able to look out for each other. Kaufman will no longer be able to keep an eye on Ross, guiding him to his room when he forgets which door is his. Nor will she be able to pick up groceries for the man on the second floor, whom she described as “a shut-in.” The community that existed at the Castaway is no more.
Through five years of motel demolitions, the city of Reno has established no specific program to assist those on the brink of being displaced. The city has existing citywide programs for those facing housing insecurity, including deposit assistance and rental relief. But it doesn’t provide any outreach to make sure motel residents know about the programs.
In an interview with ProPublica, Wilson said Jacobs has given her an open checkbook and no deadline for relocating tenants.
Wilson meets with each tenant to discuss their financial situation and what kind of housing they’d like. She tells them that they won’t be allowed to bring much with them if they relocate to a new apartment: no additional clothes, bedding or other belongings. Their new landlords don’t want bedbugs or cockroaches to hitch a ride on their possessions. Wilson said she offers to buy replacements for necessities.
Wilson said she’s able to connect the tenants with social services, a network of apartment managers who are willing to look past an eviction or poor credit, and public assistance, including the city’s deposit assistance program. Because of Reno’s housing shortage, she said, she spends hours driving in search of vacancies.
She’s had successes. One family of six with a steady income found a mobile home, but needed a down payment. Wilson said she wrote them a check for $5,000. At the Castaway, two neighbors refused to separate, so she found them apartments in the same complex. Others wanted to move out of state to be closer to family, so she bought them plane tickets.
“I get them housed the way they want to be housed,” she said. “And they’re real decent places. They have no cockroaches, no bedbugs, no large mice that are chasing you.”
But not everyone got the help they needed.
In 2018, Jacobs evicted a woman at the Crest Inn, another motel he’d bought, shortly after a stroke left her in a wheelchair and barely able to speak. She had been given two months’ free rent as Wilson shut down the motel, according to court records. But the woman was forced to stay with a friend when security locked her out of her unit.
In a written response to ProPublica, Jacobs said he evicted the woman for failing to follow a code of conduct, which prohibits “the sale of drugs, the sale of weapons, prostitution, threatening or actually causing harm to neighbors. If a tenant violated the code of conduct they were evicted.”
That same year, a woman died of pneumonia-related sepsis soon after losing her room at the El Ray motel when Jacobs bought it.
Jacobs said he no longer had records on the woman who lost her home at the El Ray, but said he was “confident” that she “was successfully rehoused.” The address listed at the time of her death, however, was the Reno homeless shelter.
Nor did Ross wind up in a better place. Near the end of September, Ross said he had news. Wilson had found him another motel room. He’d be out by the end of the week, moving four blocks away to the Ace Motor Lodge, another weekly motel with a long history of infestations and unsafe conditions, according to city records.
“I’ll call a taxi, I guess,” he said. “I only got a suitcase. It’s not much.”
By early November, the Castaway Inn was empty.