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Residents of run-down, bug-infested motel in limbo as city takes over

Devin Kelly
The Big Timber Motel is located on 5th Avenue and Unga Street across from Merrill Field in Anchorage. Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
Bill Roth
Shirley Bates speaks from the doorway of her room at the Big Timber Motel on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
Bill Roth
Big Timber Motel residents Sonya Sovak and her boyfriend Mark Woodworth on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Woodworth said, "I don't have a place to go, and the baby's going to be sleeping in the car again."
Bill Roth
Nevaeh Malutin, 2, and her sister Ruby Foster, 4, look out from the window of their third floor room at the Big Timber Motel on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
Bill Roth
Sonya Savok with her daughters Emerald Savok who was born on Jan. 4, Ruby Foster, 4, and Nevaeh Malutin, 2, in their room at the Big Timber Motel on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
Bill Roth

An Anchorage motel seized by the municipality after its owner failed to pay three years' worth of property taxes has been declared a health and safety risk, officials said Wednesday.

About two dozen tenants, including a 2-week-old baby, live in the Big Timber Motel at 2037 E. Fifth Ave., across from Merrill Field, officials said. In a building inspection this week, officials said, they discovered rooms infested with bedbugs and shrews.

A building safety violation was posted Wednesday because the motel also lacked heat and hot water, said Lindsey Whitt, city communications director. Tenants were heating rooms with space heaters and kitchen ovens.

Terry Stahlman, the owner of the property, owes about $34,000 in property taxes, which prompted the December foreclosure, Whitt said. Stahlman, an ailing former strip club owner, did not appear for a scheduled interview with the Daily News on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

The municipality now has to decide whether to fix up the building or, much more likely, issue eviction notices out of concern for the tenants, Whitt said. She also stressed that the matter is still evolving.

A task force that met on Wednesday to discuss the property determined it is a health and safety risk but not a life-threatening one at this point. But Whitt said that assessment could change, as officials are reviewing whether to condemn the building.

"Has this ever happened before, (the city) taking over a large property with existing tenants? We don't really have a case like this to compare it to," Whitt said.

Many of the tenants said they have disabilities and live on fixed incomes, and where they will go if evicted remains unclear. The municipality is working with local social services agencies to find living arrangements for the tenants, Whitt said, but tenants at the motel said Wednesday afternoon they hadn't been contacted about their options.

The motel, built in 1970, is attached to the Showboat Showclub, a shuttered strip club. Signs advertising "Showclub" are still mounted outside the bright green and teal exterior.

On the bottom floor of the brown-and-white motel, torn-up linoleum lies beneath silent doorways. Red paint is peeling off the staircase railings.

Inside, orange spray foam insulation mushrooms out of the baseboards. Rugs lie in the hallway. One is rolled up; a second is pushed up awkwardly up against the wall. The floors look unswept.

Puffin Stepanoff walked up a staircase with mirrors lining the walls. The 33-year-old and her mother, Oleana, pay $800 a month for a one-bedroom unit with a kitchenette and no heating. For warmth, they keep their oven door open.

White baby powder is sprinkled over the furniture and floors, a household treatment for bedbugs.

"They itch, they bite you," said Oleana Stepanoff, 65. Bedbugs infest the bed and the small, cramped couch where Puffin sleeps, she said. Sitting down anywhere is uncomfortable.

"I really want to go to where there is no bugs," she said. Or mice, which Oleana said run around the room. Oleana moved to Anchorage from Chignik about two decades ago. Both she and Puffin are disabled and can't work.

But if Oleana has to move now, she said, she doesn't know where she'll go.

Next door to the Stepanoffs, Shirley Bates, 68, said she'd be out on the street if she had to move.

She pays $675 a month for a room without a kitchen. Also disabled and unable to work, Bates said she lives on a fixed income of $1,200 a month.

"I've been comfortable here, though," Bates said. "They've treated me well." She said she doesn't have problems with bedbugs or mice but knows her neighbors do.

Some tenants said two men in orange vests who said they were with the Municipality of Anchorage knocked on doors within the past several weeks and told people they had to move out. Whitt said she could not confirm that the men were from the city. No government officials had been authorized to do that, and no tenants have been evicted, she said.

One man who lived next door to Bates moved out already.

"He didn't wait to see what happened," she said.

Bates hasn't gone anywhere yet. She has two artificial hips and a walker. She said she can't go very far.

"What can I do? I would literally be out on the street."

Sonya Savok, 27, moved into a one-bedroom unit on the third floor of the motel in August. Before that, she said, she and her two young daughters were living in her 1998 Chevy Impala.

On Jan. 4, she gave birth to a third daughter. It was a difficult birth. She said she received 10 blood transfusions in 24 hours and stayed in the hospital for six days.

While she was in the hospital, her brother, who also lives with her, heard about the possible eviction. Savok's blood pressure rose, she said, and stayed high until she left the hospital.

Their unit at the Big Timber Motel is a picture of contrast: few pieces of furniture, but in the bedroom, a jacuzzi-sized tub, a relic of another era.

Now, bedbugs emerge from the tub and the dresser, Savok said. Her daughters sleep on the bed with her and squirm. Shrews leave droppings and force them to move the furniture frequently, she said.

"It's horrible. Once a week we have to bag everything and throw it in the dryer," said Savok, sitting in a chair near the TV and holding her infant daughter in her arms.

If the family is evicted, Savok is hoping to find shelter at the Clare House. She's just not sure if there's room.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

 

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By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com