Out Heaven's Gate
In a past life, it was just a Days Inn in a bad location on the wrong end of a changing downtown. But in 1993, the hotel was purchased for more than $2 million by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and reincarnated, amid considerable fanfare, as the Heaven on Earth Inn.
Heaven on Earth was to be both an income-producer and a meeting place for disciples of the maharishi, who's best known as the founder of transcendental meditation and a spiritual guide to the Beatles in the late sixties. A vegetarian restaurant was opened on the ground floor, and plans were announced to use half of the building as a hotel and the other half as a T.M. school.
But Heaven on Earth -- which has since undergone a few more life changes and is now known as the Houston Downtown Plaza Hotel -- never delivered the transcendence its name promised, and in recent weeks, it's been the scene of some very down-to-earth discord resulting from notices to vacate given to between 40 and 50 long-term tenants by a new management company. The rub is that most of the lodgers had been working for the hotel in lieu of rent, and now will be left without a home or a job.
"It is a travesty that [the maharishi] would allow them to be kicked out on the streets," says Margaret Ann Mahsman, a former administrative assistant at the hotel. Mahsman herself got a notice to vacate over the weekend of August 10, even though she claims to have a written agreement with the hotel and documented work hours that should allow her to remain in the Plaza through next month.
Bad karma is no stranger to the hotel. Located at the corner of Calhoun and Travis streets, the nondescript high-rise has been dubbed the "Beirut Hilton" by neighbors for its rundown exterior and shabby interior. In the past four months, a homicide, a drug bust and an assault have been reported at the building. While being interviewed by the Press, the general manager was notified over his walkie-talkie of "flames shooting out" from behind a dryer.
Aside from a blue banner on the side of the building that screams "Great Rooms! Great Price!" there's little to indicate the Plaza is actually a hotel. Inside, the lobby furniture is fraying and the carpeting is faded. The swimming pool and weight room have been closed. If you're lucky, the elevator takes less than five minutes and doesn't stop between floors. A parking garage with an abandoned security post takes up part of the first five floors, but most of the remaining floors are in various states of mild disrepair. The Maharishi Vedic School still operates on the 20th floor.
The Vedic School assumed ownership and control of the facility in the summer of 1994, after the Heaven on Earth Inns Corporation wasn't able to pay its employees and closed the hotel and restaurant. The school continued to operate the hotel on a limited basis, implementing a system whereby tenants could pay their rent by working part-time in administration, security, maintenance or housekeeping. It was cheaper than paying workers. "We had a lot of rooms, and we were short on money," explains Harry Pavelka, who was the director of the Vedic School before becoming the hotel's general manager about two years ago.
Many of the worker/tenants were homeless and unemployed when they walked in the door (not the front door, mind you, because the maharishi's followers are forbidden from conducting business from the south side of a building); others were in drug and alcohol recovery programs; and still others were crack addicts or suspected drug dealers, says Tom Hayden, the hotel's former marketing director and new general manager.
Few of the employees obtained written agreements stipulating that they were working in exchange for rent. In most cases, the only paperwork they filled out were applications for employment and room assignment cards. Once word got out that Heaven on Earth offered work in exchange for rent with free water and electricity, the employee ranks swelled.
Last month, Ashoka Investment and Management Services took over management of the 600-room property from Heaven on Earth Inns, which had leased the property again in January of this year. And with this "under new management" mantra came dissension between the tenant-employees and management. Pavelka accepts part of the blame for what he calls "chaos in transition."
"I created department heads, and there was a point this year where I let the department heads hire too many people," Pavelka says. According to Hayden, before Ashoka took over, about 70 of the 114 residents of the hotel were employees. Because personnel and tenant records are sparse, the exact number is hard to pin down.
The decision as to who would be kept on staff rested solely with Hayden. In a July 29 memo, Hayden outlined what jobs remained and told all members of the staff that they could reapply and interview for their positions.
"I gave them two hours to fill out an application, and my intention was to interview everybody," says Hayden. But about halfway through the interviews, Hayden says, his new boss, Eddie Bhatt, told him to choose a staff. "I've had the luxury of knowing how staff members work without having to go through the interview process," says Hayden, who began working at the hotel as marketing director last November. "When I was told that I would only be allowed to retain 20 people here, I knew who the 20 were, basically."
Those who were not rehired were originally told they would have seven days to vacate their rooms, but Hayden says Bhatt rejected that idea, too. "He put it very plainly to me. He said, 'This is a business, and if they're here, they're using utilities, and they have to pay rent,' " Hayden says.
Stephen Valentine, who worked in security, took up residence at the hotel in April after he, his wife Kim and their infant daughter arrived from Atlanta at the nearby Greyhound bus station. Valentine says he was hired to work 20 hours a week in exchange for rent on one room. He says he verbally agreed to work full-time for two rooms and an extra $150 a week, but never got the money. After being told by Hayden that he was fired, Valentine says, he was assured that his family would not be put out on the streets. Two days later, on August 2, the Valentines and most of the other terminated employees received notices to vacate the building in three days for failure to pay rent.
"Everything he told me was a flat-out lie," Valentine says.
Many of the former employees faced a dilemma: because they were working in exchange for rent, and have no income other than food stamps, they were unable to quickly come up with the money needed to allow them to remain at the hotel.
"Everything we've done here is aboveboard," says Hayden, who admits to living in his car for a few days before moving into the hotel. "We're getting rid of the crack dealers and drug users. We're trying to make this a safe, clean environment."
Hayden says he offered to set up payment schedules with those who talked to him. Some people have been able to make those arrangements, while those who can't find jobs or a place to stay have refused to leave.
"We don't have nowhere else to go," explains Kim Valentine, a lament voiced by other former employees who remain at the hotel. Some, such as Barbara O'Hara, are staying because they're trying to recover overtime wages that could be used to pay the "delinquent rent." Unlike most of the ex-workers, O'Hara has timecards and a check/cash request showing that she's owed money by the previous management company.
Hayden, meanwhile, says that Ashoka plans many improvements at the Plaza, including the installation of telephones and cable television. And he insists that he's not a villain. "I'm not responsible for a man to get a job to support his family," he says from behind the desk in his cramped office. "Realistically, I know people are upset. It's just something I have to live with.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.