A 46-year-old man was arrested and accused of arson after attempting to burn down the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, according to the Renton Police Department. The hotel has become a flashpoint for controversy after the hotel was turned into a homeless shelter for more than 200 people in April.
The shelter was specifically for those with substance abuse problems as well as mental illness, and was intended to reduce capacity at Seattle shelters in an effort to protect people from the spread of COVID-19.
Renton firefighter crews responded to the Red Lion Hotel on South Grady Way just after noon on Wednesday to a fire on the sixth floor after a couch was set aflame in a room. Firefighters said that a sprinkler system helped to contain the flames. Six rooms were damaged by water, fire and smoke on the 5th and 6th floors. All 200 people in the building were evacuated, and no injuries were reported.
According to KOMO News, as firefighters worked to douse the fire, a witness led police to a man standing outside the building who they claimed had started the blaze. Fire department officials said the fire "…had placed multiple lives in danger."
On Thursday, Renton Police issued a statement that the suspect, who had lived at the hotel for three weeks, became upset with staff members. According to police he told staff, "I'm going to burn this place down," then locked himself in his 6th floor room. A locksmith was called to break open the door but as he and staff members approached the room they found thick smoke in the hall. The locksmith grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to get into the room but there was already too much heat and smoke. The suspect eventually made it outside where he was arrested by police.
According to the Seattle Times, the people primarily housed at the Red Lion were previously staying at the Downtown Emergency Service Center's Morrison Hotel shelter in Seattle. Many of those served by this shelter have disabilities, serious mental illness or substance use disorders.
The fire comes just days after Renton officials brought forward legislation that would set a six month move out date at the Red Lion Hotel. Since that facility, along with two others in King County, were opened to the homeless in April, firefighters and medics have been called to the Red Lion 277 times.
Municipal officials say that the hotel has led to an increase in crime in the area. Renton police reported a dramatic increase in calls to the hotel. According to the Associated Press at a Renton City Council meeting Monday, the mayor and council members heard almost an hour of testimony from the community about an emergency ordinance to rewrite Renton zoning code to restrict homeless shelters' placement and operations.
Renton police Chief Ed Van Valey told the King County Council in May that there had been a 79 percent increase in calls from the hotel's location, sometimes as many as 9 to 12 calls in a single day.
In April, King County negotiated a 90 day lease with the three hotels, one being the Red Lion, and the rates ranged from $39 to $59 per room per night. At the time King County promised Renton officials that this would be a temporary arrangement.
The Renton Reporter said that on April 2, Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone sent a letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine stating that while the city is ready to rally behind and support each other during this public health crisis, there are also clear expectations for the county's use of the Red Lion Inn.
Pavone wrote, "If we end up with new obligations being placed on Renton police officers because of this facility, we would also want to work with the county on FEMA or CARES Act reimbursement funding to help offset those additional costs." Data from the city shows that from April 6 to May 17, Renton Police received 657 calls in the vicinity of the hotel, compared to 2019's 399 calls, and 2018's 441 calls. In the first half of May, 9 percent of calls were in the vicinity of the Red Lion compared to 2019's 4.6 percent and 2018's 4.7 percent. Renton Regional Fire Authority Chief Rick Marshall told the county council that the fire department fielded 30 calls in April, whereas over the same period last year it fielded one.
In May, the mayor addressed the King County Council about the increased stress on Renton's emergency services. The mayor also spoke of concerns for local residents and businesses as well as the county's lack of an exit plan for the shelter.
In June, Renton leaders told the county, the shelter operator and the investors' group that owns the hotel that they were in violation of the city's zoning codes. The county appealed that decision to the Renton hearing examiner, who ruled that the county needed to apply to the city for a permit or leave, but also that the city's zoning code was vague when it came to homeless shelters.
In July, Renton issued a finding of a city code violation, and gave the county until Aug. 9 to find a new location for the shelter. This was superseded by COVID health orders.
Many believe that Renton has withstood more than its share for Seattle and the region's homeless emergency, as the Red Lion is housing more residents than any other emergency shelter in the county during the crisis. Chip Vincent, administrator for Renton's Community & Economic Development department told KING 5 News "They moved about 230 homeless individuals of downtown Seattle into a thriving business district in the center of Renton."