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Anchorage fixing heat at Big Timber; family in other seized property asks 'why not us?'

Sean Doogan
A Mountain View cabin owned by Terry Stahlman has been seized by the Municipality of Anchorage due to unpaid property taxes. Sean Doogan photo

Terry Stahlman is having a bad day.

"There are good days and bad days, and this is a bad day," he said Friday. Stahlman is fighting the Municipality of Anchorage after it took possession of his property at 2703 E. Fifth Ave. -- a 23-room motel and adjacent building that once housed a strip club. As Stahlman waited inside the Big Timber Motel's office, a maintenance company worked to fix a boiler problem and an Enstar crew checked the gas system so that the building's heat could safely be restored. The gas was shut off last month because Stahlman couldn't pay his bill, which he estimated to be $10,000. Residents are using portable electric heaters and open ovens for warmth.

But that is just the tip of Stahlman's iceberg of problems. On Dec. 16, the Municipality of Anchorage moved to seize the property because of more than $34,000 in unpaid property taxes over the last three years. Municipal workers posted notices on all the buildings doors earlier this week and are working to mitigate a mix of building code violations and health and safety problems, including a bedbug infestation. The city said it has formed a task force to determine what to do with the building and the two dozen people who live there.

Stahlman claimed the city is targeting him.

"They came by six weeks before they posted the takeover notices," Stahlman said. "And they didn't find any major problems until they wanted my properties."

Stahlman claimed he only wants to help people, including his residents, and wants to resolve the situation so that everyone will have a place to live.

A few miles away from the Big Timber Motel and former home of the Showboat Show Club strip club, another property that Stahlman owned has also been foreclosed on by the muni because of unpaid taxes.

Stahlman said he plans to pay off that bill -- which he estimated at $3,000 -- Friday. But the people who live in the property -- a small house on North Lane Street, in Mountain View -- aren’t happy with Stahlman and wonder why the city is helping people at the Big Timber Motel while they are getting little assistance in finding a new home.

"What about us?" Crystal Drew said. "I think we should get the same treatment, too."

The municipality said it is looking into the case and trying to determine how it might help Drew and her family find a new place.

Drew said she was told the city took the property over earlier this month, but she had already paid January's rent to Stahlman. Drew's mother, Wanda Deacon, went to the Big Timber office to get the rent back. Drew said Stahlman's manager gave them $300 of the $1,200 rent. But when they tried to get the rest, they were told, "Good luck. Terry's broke."

The home on North Lane Street, like the Big Timber Motel, has seen better days. The roof in the arctic entry leaks. A small bucket that sits on a shelf to catch dripping water has to be emptied out at least once per day. A large wooden plank serves as a front door lock because the house does not have deadbolts installed in its doors.

Further inside, more leaks drip into buckets placed around the home. A back bedroom's wall is warped -- the result of a windstorm in 2012 that sent a tree crashing down on the house. Water is coming through the cracks and even seeping up through the floor. Clothes hang on a line in the living room because the dryer is broken. Drew said Stahlman has been unresponsive to her pleas to fix the place.

"I am so frustrated that I didn't even call about the dryer," Drew said.

Drew shares the home with her mother, her 8-year-old daughter and her 15-year old sister. The family moved to Anchorage from the Interior village of Grayling a few years ago. Drew said they were on the verge of homelessness when they found out about the house for rent on North Lane.

"We came over and looked at it, and decided to move in," Drew said. "We didn't have any other place to go." Drew said she started noticing big problems at the house a few weeks after moving in. That was a year and a half ago. Since then, Drew said other than fixing the bathroom toilet, Stahlman has refused to make other repairs.

Meanwhile, the municipality is being flooded with offers to help the residents of the Big Timber. Several have offered to pay off the unpaid tax bill and buy the property, but that is a scenario that would take time and a bidding process to complete. Other are offering household goods and money to help the buildings residents, almost all of whom are low-income earners, unemployed, or disabled. The muni said it is working to figure out the best agency to take the donations.

On Thursday a man knocked on the door of 27-year-old Sonya Savok's apartment at the Big Timber. Savok's family was featured in news reports about the building and its predicament earlier this week. The man, who wanted to remain anonymous, simply gave Savok a $100 gift card and left. Savok said the gesture brought her to tears.

Once willing to stay at the motel, Savok now said she wants out. Workers from Cook Inlet Head Start -- an early childhood education program -- are helping get Savoy's children, 4-year old Ruby and 2-year-old Nevaeh, into the program. Savok said they are even helping her find a new place to live, as the ultimate fate of the motel she now lives in remains in limbo.

But the process has been a hard one for Savok.

"I am still in a state of denial about what's happened," Savok said.

The municipality said it may have the heat and hot water turned back on sometime today. But it is still trying to determine what to do with the building. If Stahlman doesn't come up with the money to pay off his property tax problems, the city could be forced to sell it, and that requires a lot of repairs.

"It would cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for abatement," Mayor Dan Sullivan's spokesperson, Lindsey Whitt, said.

As a task force of municipal officials, social workers, and resident themselves work to determine what will happen next, for now, the people who live at the motel are safe, but not necessarily sound. Voles and mice have been discovered in the building. And then there is the bedbug problem, which has left residents with itchy bites covering their bodies. Even the smallest residents are keenly aware of the pests.

"I am afraid of bugs," 4-year old Ruby said, with a furrowed brow and worried look. "Except ladybugs. Ladybugs are nice," she added as her frown became a bright smile.

Sean Doogan sean@alaskadispatch.com.