Portia Belshe, 67, has lived at the Mush Inn Motel since May. Lately, she said, she’s been going to bed with tissue paper stuffed in her ears to keep insects from roaming inside her ears as she sleeps. Once, she said, a roach crawled inside her open mouth.
“They taste just as bad as they smell,” said Belshe, one of nine current and former Mush Inn tenants suing the Third Avenue hotel. They claim that when they moved into the 94-room complex near Merrill Field, managers failed to warn them that the building was infested with bed bugs, roaches and mice.
The lawsuit, filed in October in state Superior Court, alleges the hotel owners and management ignored tenant complaints, lied to new customers and “endangered basic health and safety" of tenants. Families, including small children, live for months and years in the rentals, said Nicholas Feronti, an Alaska Legal Services attorney who filed the complaint.
Citing the ongoing lawsuit, an attorney for two of the owners, couple Ho Jin Kim and Young Mee, said they would not be available for an interview. They deny the complaints.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kim cannot comment on the pending litigation, other than to say that they vehemently dispute the claims alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint and will be answering the complaint in due course,” attorney Robert Misulich wrote in an email.
Misulich would not say if the owners’ denial of the claims in the lawsuit also meant that they dispute that the hotel is infested. When a reporter visited the hotel on Wednesday, bed bugs detritus ringed Belshe’s mattress. When she moved her refrigerator, cockroaches scattered for the walls.
Other plaintiffs, who are suing the hotel with free legal help from the non-profit Alaska Legal Services Corp., say that when they complained of mice they were given mouse traps by the management. Others caught dozens of roaches in sticky traps in the hotel’s small one-room units.
“Defendants are slumlords," the lawsuit says. “They foist this dangerous housing on low-income tenants who have few, if any, alternatives.”
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The city health department has received nine complaints, from seven different people, about cockroaches and bed bugs at Mush Inn since February 2016. The department issued a citation and single, $300 fine, to the hotel on July 19 for “failure to maintain a dwelling unit in a clean and sanitary condition,” said deputy director DeeAnn Fetko.
One of the complaints came from Belshe, who said the city inspections and inexpensive fine -- it can costs hundreds of dollars per room to eradicate a bug problem -- don’t seem to make any difference. The owners sometimes use a device to super-heat the rooms in an effort to drive away or kill the pests, she said, but the bugs reappear days later. In the meantime, her attorney said, the pests scurry to adjacent rooms.
Of the nine plaintiffs, several have moved out. Some said they had felt trapped and struggled to find another affordable place to live. Rent is $800 but the security deposit is only $200, the plaintiffs' attorney said, making it easier to get into a room than a traditional apartment.
City housing codes say owners of rental units are responsible for eradicating pests and rodents, which can spread disease. Municipal records list six current owners of the hotel, which was built in 1960 and most recently changed hands in 2004. As of Wednesday, the hotel had not filed a response to the lawsuit by the tenants.
Misulich, with the law firm Holland and Knight, said he only represents two of the owners, Ho Jin Kim and Young Mee Kim and does not represent the management company for the hotel. Employees referred questions to Misulich.
Court records show that the Kims filed a lawsuit against some of the other owners of the hotel in September, seeking to dissolve the limited liability company that operates the business. The lawsuit claims that the other owners, who live outside Alaska, have been "unwilling to authorize” payments necessary to continue operations.
Belshe has lived in Alaska since the 1990s and her sons played high school football in Palmer, she said. She had driven by the hotel many times and, when she was looking for a place just outside downtown Anchorage, it seemed like a convenient location.
“One thing that infuriates me, when you check in, you are not told there is an infestation here,” Belshe said. She said she cannot afford to move.
Belshe said she learned of the infestation when she discovered bed bug bites appearing all over her body. In the early afternoon, the roaches began to grow lively. Scampering across the bamboo-pattern wallpaper. Falling from the cabinets to the kitchen counter as she cooked dinner for one.
Two other tenants began renting a unit in June 2017. They puzzled over the bite marks appearing on their bodies before learning the room was infested with bed bugs, the lawsuit says. The couple convinced management to move them to another unit, which also turned out to have a pest problem. When the pair complained, they were told they could “get out,” the suit says.
Another woman, 63-year-old Naomi Shearrod, remains at the Mush Inn because she can’t afford to move, according to the complaint. She wipes her counters with bleach. Others bought air mattresses or slept fully clothed on top of their covers to keep the bed bugs away. Tenants Ruth Ballot and Prentiss Williams said they only slept an hour their first night at the hotel, appalled at the crawling walls. They too were moved to a second unit, where they trapped at least seven mice.
Children of all ages live at the hotel, Belshe said. On her wall is a coloring-book drawing of a character from the movie “Trolls,” the character’s hair colored purple with a magic marker. Belshe said she used to babysit a 4-year-old in her room but can no longer have children – or anyone else – visit because she’s afraid they will take bed bugs home with them.
The pest problem has left her isolated and anxious, she said. When she visited the city health department to complain, she said, a roach crawled out of her paperwork.
Now, Belshe said, “I don’t go anywhere except to buy groceries.”
Note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of rooms for the Mush Inn. This story has also been updated to include information about a complaint filed by two of the hotel owners against other owners, seeking to dissolve the company that operates the hotel.