City pays for upgrades at troubled motel; residents' fate uncertain

dkelly@adn.comJanuary 30, 2014 

Anchorage's city government has spent tens of thousands of dollars fixing up a deteriorating motel seized over unpaid property taxes after an inspection revealed two dozen tenants living in vermin-infested rooms without central heating.

Mechanics repaired one of two boilers and restored heat and hot water for half the Big Timber Motel on Fifth Avenue late last week. Sonya Savok, a 27-year-old tenant whose three young daughters are 4, 2 and almost 1 month in age, said Saturday that she gave one of her children a hot bath.

The municipality is in the process of fully replacing a second boiler and repairing leaking pipes. That work is estimated to cost more than $30,000, according to city communications director Lindsey Whitt.

Tack on an unpaid $10,000 Enstar Gas Co. bill, and Whitt said the total costs to the city mount to at least $45,000 in repairs and upgrades. Crews have also installed smoke alarms and changed locks on doors.

Officials are discussing options for fumigating the rooms to get rid of bedbugs and mice, which would cost $1,000 per room, Whitt said.

"As long as we own the building, we're working to make this an upstanding place to live," Whitt said. The municipality has no plans to accept rent from the tenants, who are using the motel rooms as apartments.

A task force reviewed whether to condemn the building, but that option is unlikely at this point, Whitt said.

She also said that since news of the seizure emerged last week, the municipality has fielded multiple calls from businesses and organizations about the motel. Some callers are interested in paying off the $34,000 in back taxes and buying the property. Others want to help the people living there. Nonprofits are interested in maintaining the building as affordable housing in a city where it's in short supply.

Anyone who wants to transfer the deed out of municipal hands will have to pay off the taxes and pay the city back for the cost of the repairs and upgrades, Whitt said.

Former strip club owner Terry Stahlman, who owned the building at the time of foreclosure, said he's trying to come up with the money to regain the deed.

"I want the opportunity to fix the problems we have here," he said last weekend. He blamed his financial problems on health issues stretching over the last four years. In 2011, he put up the motel as collateral for accused murderer Michelle Linehan's bail, but later backed out.

He lost his home on Buddy Werner Drive in Hillside to foreclosure. He's been sleeping recently on the couch in the motel's front office.

About four years ago, Stahlman said, he converted the motel essentially into a home for people with disabilities.

"I'm not gonna abandon these people," he said.

The Big Timber Motel is not the only Stahlman property with tenants in limbo after a seizure by the municipality. Several miles from the motel, a brown cabin sits behind a fence in North Lane Street in Mountain View.

Stahlman said he originally bought the house as an investment. He said he owes $3,000 in taxes on the property and that it was foreclosed on at the same time as the Big Timber.

Inside, plastic containers catch water that drips from the ceiling near the front door and in the laundry room, including from a light socket. In the room Crystal Drew shares with her 8-year-old daughter, brown stains runs drip-like across the back wall, the spot where, Drew said, a small tree fell over in a windstorm last year and damaged the roof. A second dark stain appears to be spreading across the carpet.

Whitt said the municipality has been working with the family since October. That same month, an assessment determined that the property was not a health and safety risk, Whitt said.

But municipal inspectors visited the property on Jan. 6 and determined it to be in "poor condition."

"One wall and ceiling section in the back room has been damaged by a falling tree and is now bowing into the living area," an inspector wrote, according to an email from Whitt. "There is water infiltration into the living area and it is running directly over and into electrical outlets and lines. There is also water infiltration into the kitchen ceiling and water is actually dripping out of a lighting fixture."

Drew, 27, said the family had to get rid of furniture after a previous bedbug infestation. Her mother and 15-year-old sister sleep on blankets on the floor instead of mattresses, she said.

Drew also said that the family is on the waiting list for the Clare House shelter. She's worried about her sister and daughter changing schools.

"It's traumatic in itself," she said.

The community relations director for Catholic Social Services, Ellen Krsnak, said the organization plans to work to accommodate families who move from former Stahlman properties.

In the case of Clare House, however, a "significant" number of families are already on the waiting list, Krsnak said.

Back at the Big Timber, most tenants said they don't plan to move out unless they have no other choice. But Johanna Cropley, 53, said that in the last few days, a worker with the municipality has been helping her find ways to leave.

She said her income is about $17,000 a year, and she pays $1,000 a month for a room she has shared since July with her four grandchildren, ages 18, 13, 10, and 8. The two youngest children share a bed. The room has a kitchen and a walk-in closet.

Sitting outside on the balcony, she gestured to her left to a pair of mattresses leaning up against the railing, which she said she removed from the room because of bedbugs.

She regularly scans Craigslist and newspaper ads for places to live. She said she's never had such a hard time finding housing.

"When I call to ask about the deposit and the information, I find out the person before me got (the rental)," Cropley said.

Anchorage's average two-bedroom rental vacancy rate in 2013 was 3.2 percent, according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., slightly up from the rock-bottom figure of 1.8 percent in 2010.

Cropley said she moved to Anchorage from Juneau about three decades ago.

"I've never been in this situation," Cropley said, looking out over the balcony at the mountains. "I've always had a place."

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.

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