Desperate Renters Face Bugs, Damage

Housing Complaints Hotline: 343-4141

The Big Timber Motel in Anchorage has been in the news recently because of health and safety concerns – everything from fire code violations to an infestation of bedbugs, but it’s not the only low income housing in Anchorage with problems. And city officials say it’s difficult to address the issue.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.
Kassie Lee Lewis pets her cat’s head in their room in the Mush Inn in downtown Anchorage. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

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Forty-eight-year-old Kassie Lee Lewis shares a small room with her gray cat at the Mush Inn on the outskirts of downtown Anchorage. On a recent morning, she’s just finished airing out her clothes and bedding. It’s something she has to do daily to keep the bugs at bay. She points to the bed.

“I just got done going through my clothes and my bed to make sure that the bed bugs were all killed and off,” Lewis said. “I do it every day and I do kill cockroaches every day.”

She says they’ve been a problem since she moved into the room in October from Brother Francis shelter. Even though she works to keep the bed bugs out she says they crawl in from a neighboring room through a gap around a pipe under her sink. And they make her feel bad.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.
Lewis says bugs use the gap around a sink pipe as a way into her room. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

“It’s kinda disgusting and it makes me feel – I mean you can see on my face, they bite my face, they bite my arms and my legs and stuff,” Lewis said. “It’s a bummer. It makes me think of those women and children in Africa with flies all over their bodies when it happens to me.”

Besides problems with pests, Lewis shows me a place on the ceiling where water is leaking. But the rent of $850 is all she can afford.

Closer to downtown, David – who asked that we only use his first name – sits beside cages holding tropical birds in the lobby of Henry House, a transitional living facility.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.
A hole in the floor of David’s room in Henry House is an example of some of the damage in the building. Photo courtesy of David.

Henry House is a for-profit motel for men that has agreements with state agencies to provide housing for people coming out the mental health court, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and the Department of Corrections, among others. They rent simple dorm rooms for around $750 a month and serve tenants one meal a day. Women are not allowed in the rooms, but David, shared photos of his room on his cell phone in the lobby.

“I was really surprised when I went into the bathroom and I saw a hole on the floor and there was also a hole in the drywall,” David said.

David thinks the rooms should be fixed.

“Bringing up the rooms to code would be a really positive step forward for the people that are here,” David said. “The people that are on the road to recovery or the people that are dealing with long-term mental disabilities.”

The owners of Henry House, Kathy and Bob Henry, did not agree to a recorded interview, but they admit that tenants have damaged rooms and that they have trouble keeping up with maintenance.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.
The office for the Henry House. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

The oversight of Motels in Anchorage is not the responsibility of any one department or office. Instead several departments monitor them. Some departments, like fire, inspect annually, but others like building and health only check things out if they receive a complaint.

Anchorage Municipal Building official Sharon Walsh says the problems at Henry House and the Mush Inn can be reported to that hotline at the City’s land use enforcement office.

“Anything having to do with what they call vectors, you know vermin, cockroaches, rats – that will go to the health department,” Walsh said. “And then the ones that are building maintenance related, they’ll go inspect and determine what needs to be done.”

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.
A hole in the drywall beneath a crumbling bottom windowsill in David’s room. Photo courtesy of David.

Over at the Municipal Department of Health and Human Services, Deputy Director Steve Morris, says his Environmental Health Section handles pests.

“Their primary responsibility is inspection of food facilities and that sort of thing, but they also enforce a part of Title 15 which has to do with housing,” Morris said.

And motels. But Morris says the code is at least 30-years-old. There’s no regular inspection for pests. And he says the inspectors are already overworked.

“I can tell you that If we were to get hundreds of bed bug complaints we would not be able to satisfactorily inspect them, there’s just not the resources available to do that,” Morris said.

To really address the issue of bed bugs, Morris says staffing levels and the municipal code would need to be addressed.

“That’s something the Assembly would have to consider,” Morris said.

Back at Henry House, David says he hasn’t seen any pests in his room, but he’s reported the damage in his room to the owners. As of Thursday, nothing’s been fixed.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage.
Kassie Lee Lewis points to a place in her ceiling where water has been leaking through. Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

At the Mush Inn, Kassie Lee Lewis says she’s reported the leaking, cockroaches and bed bugs in her room to the manager’s office, but nothing has been done. She’s on the waiting list for an apartment through Cook Inlet Housing, but for now she’s keeping up her routines.

“Sometimes I kill ‘em in the bathroom and I kill them in the living room,” Lewis said.

Down the road near Merrill Field, many of the two-dozen residents of the Big Timber motel which was seized by the city after the owner did not pay taxes, are still living there.

Problems at that motel include fire code violations and bed bug and mice infestations. The municipality is considering condemning the building.

So far, they’ve spent around $40,000 on upgrades and paying back bills so that residents can have hot water and heat again. They are not charging residents rent at this time.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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