The Windsor Hotel, an anomaly in pricey downtown Asheville, has long been something of an endangered species. A downtown fixture for decades, the boarding house on the corner of Broadway and Walnut streets was one of the few remaining housing options in the central business district for people of modest means. Many long-term residents lived paycheck to paycheck. Several worked as day laborers; some had addiction problems; some were on disability or another form of fixed income. One was blind, another on oxygen.
Time to move
But on Oct. 5—the day David Madera officially took possession of the property—a memo informed residents that the Windsor was now officially the Asheville Hotel. Weekly rates would be raised (in some cases doubled), and those who cleared out within a week could be sent on their way with $250. A nonsmoking policy was also instituted, effective immediately (many residents were smokers). “Should you be unable to comply with this,” the memo stated, “you will be asked to vacate the premises.” Soon after, Madera conducted a walk-through; each room was photographed, and cooking devices like such as hot plates were removed to comply with fire-safety laws. Within a week, roughly half the guests were gone.
Madera—a recent transplant from Venice Beach, Calif., who bought the Windsor from Asheville resident Tom Callahan for $2.3 million—feels the reactions of many residents, as well as the media, have been unfair. “We really have done over and above what most people would have done, but it still came out negative,” he told Xpress, adding, “Not one single person that I know of did not have an option.”
“If you consider a shelter an option,” responds longtime resident and current Windsor employee Robert Martinez, who feels the change was too abrupt. “It was like, boom—he put the hammer down. You just don’t do that people,” says Martinez.
Since the change in ownership, he says he’s watched the hotel empty out, as vacated rooms are prepared for renovation and mattresses get tossed in a trash bin out front. Hotel management, he says, has asked him to take on more hours, but his room will no longer be provided as it was in the past. If he stayed, he’d be expected to pay $628 a month for housing while earning $7 an hour working for the hotel. Martinez says he plans to explore other options, calling that arrangement “indentured servitude.”
Representatives from the Affordable Housing Coalition visited the hotel that first week and counseled residents on their options, but some are still living at the hotel. “The people who are still here are scrambling,” says Martinez. “They’re in a precarious situation. They’ll have to move out with backpacks and bicycle trips.” Some former residents found housing in the Vanderbilt Apartments on Haywood Street; others applied for public housing or moved to similar residential hotels.
Madera maintains that before he arrived, the situation at the hotel “created an environment for undesirable behavior. A lot of people were staying here for extended periods of time, which is really not what this building is designed for; This is really not a great place for people to live.” And due to lax management, he adds, many people were habitually behind on their weekly rent.
The rate hike, says Madera, was necessary not just to meet his mortgage payments but because “I knew it would eliminate people who really didn’t want to be here. … I had to stir the pot.”
Madera says he never intended to take on such a project. “I just came here to visit,” he says with a laugh, “and it was like God said, ‘This is it.’” A chance meeting with Callahan led to negotiations.
Callahan declined to comment on the recent changes at the hotel, saying he didn’t know about Madera’s plans, nor did he ask. “I don’t really have anything earth-shattering to say about it,” he told Xpress.
Before closing the deal, Madera wanted to get the feel of the place—so he moved in for several months.
“I decided, I’ll stay here. I’ll be one of them; I’ll find out what’s really happening here,” he explains. “The building kind of told me what it wants: It wants all its old brick exposed; it wants to be old and nice. It was just waiting for me to come and do my thing.” Madera says he plans to hold an event in which each room can be designed by a different architect or interior designer.
But Martinez is less than impressed with those plans. “This has always been a workingman’s hotel,” he says. “Now it’s going to cater to highfalutin, bourgeoisie-type guests.”
On a recent afternoon, three people looking for work entered the hotel lobby and found Madera sitting behind the desk. They were in luck—he was ready to hire laborers to start ripping the plaster off the walls to expose the brick beneath. “How much are you asking an hour?” he queried. One said $10; another said he usually works for $15 but that $10 was acceptable.
“We’ll start at $8,” said Madera. “And if you are the workers you say you are, then we’ll bump it up to $10.”
A frisky young dog bounced up, wagging its tail. Madera had rescued the dog from a canine shelter, dubbed him “Windsor,” and given him a new home.