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Residents, owner of Lincoln hotel getting shut down look to what's next
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Residents, owner of Lincoln hotel getting shut down look to what's next

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Julie Pinkston had $100, her car and nowhere to go when she got kicked out of an abusive home in 2016.

A decade earlier she'd found herself in the same situation and stayed in her car for a month when she couldn't find a more stable option, she said.

On a friend's recommendation this time around, she looked to The Oasis Inn and Suites for a few nights' refuge.

Pinkston's short-term plans became more permanent, however, after hotel owner Paul Holt agreed to cut her a deal on room rent if she helped as a housekeeper when her cash from working temp jobs couldn't cut it.

"It was a good feeling, coming from the street, having nowhere to go and coming here and feeling like people cared," Pinkston said.

Pinkston and more than 50 other residents face homelessness again at the end of August after Lincoln's Building and Safety Department revoked the hotel's operating permit June 29 to break a cycle of disrepair city housing inspectors believe has gone on too long at 5250 Cornhusker Highway.

Oasis Inn and Suites

The city revoked the operations permit for The Oasis Inn and Suites on Cornhusker Highway on June 29. People staying there have until Aug. 30 to leave.

"I don't want to see people out on the streets," said the 55-year-old, who's still figuring out her housing answer and may turn to another hotel for a short-term fix.

Agencies that belong to the Lincoln Homeless Coalition have reached out to residents like Pinkston in the last two weeks as the Aug. 30 deadline to vacate the hotel approaches and Holt continues working to keep it running.

For most of the last seven years, The Oasis has been a last resort for individuals and families on the edge of being homeless, hotel residents like Pinkston say.

Despite the hotel's troubles, some residents have been content living in the former Holiday Inn Northeast, said Matt Martinosky of CenterPointe, who has been reaching out to Oasis residents as part of the coalition's response.

"For better or worse, that was home for them," said Leah Droge, who works for Friendship Home and chairs the homeless coalition.

'Hopes and dreams'

City housing officials don't consider Holt a malicious landlord, but Lincoln's housing appeals board decided it couldn't continue to allow people to live in the substandard conditions there.

Housing inspectors have cited The Oasis for numerous violations of city code, and since 2015, inspectors have validated 14 housing code complaints and 39 health department complaints.

Oasis Inn and Suites, 07.09

The interior of the main building at Oasis Inn and Suites in a photo taken in early July shows the putting greens that were part of the hotel when it was the Holiday Inn Northeast in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Beyond the renovated lobby entrance sits a gated-off, unfilled pool in the center of the hotel. Curtains hang askew on the second floor. On Thursday, the lobby was hot -- city housing officials have previously registered the indoor air temperature at 115 degrees.

Police have been called to the hotel more than 900 times in the last five years to investigate reports of domestic violence, child abuse and drug use, and officers arrested one guest for dealing drugs out of the hotel.

Holt doesn't deny the issues that have plagued the hotel and ultimately led the city to shut it down.

As he graduated college, Holt bought the hotel in 2013 for $1.6 million and quickly realized the maintenance, operations and renovation efforts couldn't be managed like he had managed his rental houses.

High monthly utility bills and rooms that needed renovation made it hard for him to raise his rates and focus on nightly customers. Instead, he had to lower them to keep business and appeal to longer-term guests, he said.

When he took over the hotel, Holt lived and worked there, which sometimes meant sleeping at the front desk to catch some rest after cleaning rooms and making repairs, he said.

But ultimately he moved to St. Louis when his wife got her dream job, and then spinal issues last year required immediate surgery. His recovery delayed his ability to keep up the hotel's operations, he said.

But now he hopes the interest of a national hotel group will help him get the larger work of renovating the main hotel off the ground.

A separate building on the property just north of the hotel had been condemned at the time Holt bought the property, and after fixing leaks in the roof and putting in new stairs and railings, he opened up the larger units that had full kitchens to his longer-term guests.

Now that building, referred to as the annex, is his first priority in the hotel's salvation.

He plans to replace the exterior and bring the newly vacant rooms up to city code by Sept. 1 with the hope the city will let him keep that part of the hotel open so he can tackle renovations in the main building.

Sean Stewart, Lincoln's chief city housing inspector, said there are still a litany of problems across the property: fire safety issues, the decrepit exterior of The Annex, inoperable drains, inadequate wall and floor coverings and pests that need to be eradicated.

Stewart said Holt has told him his plan but typically the city doesn't issue partial hotel operating licenses.

Admittedly, though, nothing is typical about this case, Stewart said.

"He has his own hopes and dreams," Stewart said, and on that, "we’ll just have to cross those bridges when we get there."

Though the hotel's future is uncertain, Stewart is unequivocal about the city's stance.

"We aren’t even going to entertain the possibility of reopening until after it's been vacated," he said.

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Finding solutions

Years ago, a troubled hotel near the airport that had long been on the city's radar went under before inspectors needed to step in and take measures to bring it into compliance, Stewart said.

In January, Stewart revoked The Oasis' operating permit, but Holt appealed the decision.

On June 29, a housing appeals board upheld that action and pulled the permit in a rare move. At that time, city officials pledged that the city had already formulated a plan to assist the residents in finding housing.

Oasis Inn and Suites, 07.09

Paul Holt, owner of Oasis Inn and Suites, talks during an interview on July 9.

The city notified the Lincoln Homeless Coalition earlier this year of the situation at The Oasis, and staff from the various nonprofits serving the homeless and nearly homeless in Lincoln began planning a strategy to transition the residents into new housing, according to the coalition.

The coalition hoped to avoid a situation like what happened in a north Omaha apartment complex in 2018 when 500 mostly refugee residents became homeless without notice when housing inspectors condemned their homes due to squalid conditions.

Time has been on the side of the homeless coalition and the tenants in The Oasis case.

Coalition members have tapped into their connections with landlords, seeking to find open apartments these residents could rent, Droge said.

In his work, Martinosky surveys the individual needs of each resident or their family that may go beyond housing needs, he said.

"We’re trying to be like a traveling resource fair in order to help with the situation," he said.

Oasis Inn and Suites

The city has ordered the Oasis Inn and Suites to close after numerous violations of city housing and health codes.

Some have reached out for help, while others are finding their own solutions, Martinosky said.

One woman who lives at The Oasis had an apartment tour arranged through Community Action Partnership late last week and was hopeful.

She's wanted to move her family out several times in the last year, but emergency car repairs needed to ensure she could keep working her restaurant job ate up the money required for a deposit and first month's rent.

What's more, having a large dog and a prior eviction makes her searches for an apartment in Lincoln harder, she said.

"You get here (to The Oasis), and you feel like you’re stuck, and you're just trying to make sure that everything doesn’t fall on top of you," said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she's embarrassed to live there.

Droge, who chairs the homeless coalition, said tenants like these with often less-than-perfect renting history face a host of barriers. Local agencies have to work to find landlords willing to rent to them. And often college students are competing for some of the same housing.

"There’s a lot of choice as a landlord," Droge said. 

'Not going to let someone be homeless'

Despite the closure order, Holt hopes to give the hotel a refresh and renovate all the rooms to the same standard, so he is no longer struggling to catch up on every problem at the hotel, he said.

In the last two months, he's written off $12,000 in rent owed because some of his residents couldn't afford to make full payments due to the pandemic, he said.

"I would rather have people who are coming to the hotel for business, but I'm not going to let someone be homeless, especially during COVID-19," Holt said.

A city inspection after pandemic precautions in Lincoln began to ease revealed problems that went unaddressed because tenants and staff were wary of each other and the spread of the coronavirus, he said.

For example, one resident tore up his floor.

Holt said he's planning to take the renovation jobs on himself and record videos of his progress to showcase the hotel's comeback on a YouTube channel.

Pinkston worries about her future and the place where she's made a satisfying life for herself, she said.

Oasis Inn and Suites, 07.09

Paul Holt, owner of Oasis Inn and Suites, and Julie Pinkston, a long-term resident and worker at the hotel, talk during an interview on July 9. Between 50-100 people could become homeless when the city closes the hotel on Aug. 31.

After she began working at the hotel, she made it her mission to help short- and long-term guests feel welcome and know they weren't alone. Her efforts have included cooking a Thanksgiving meal for everyone.

She's begun packing her bags, but she plans to help Holt with whatever he needs to make the hotel livable again.

"I have faith in him," Pinkston said. "I know he'll give it his all."

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Coming soon to E Street: New home, new apartments, new community land trust

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Local government reporter

Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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