First of two parts
Odors hit like breakers in the dim cinder-block hallways of the Inlet Inn. Filthy hair. Urine. Pot. Old alcohol oozing out of pores.
I walked through the hotel a few weeks ago with two Anchorage Police Department officers. Minutes before we arrived, paramedics had removed a body from room 119. Alcohol poisoning, the officers said. It was the third death there in six months, including one fatal stabbing.
Technically speaking, the Inlet Inn, located on the corner of Sixth Avenue and H Street across from the Transit Center, is a 79-room hotel. In practice, it's more like a for-profit homeless shelter. Many of its tenants cycle through Brother Francis and homeless camps. About 75 percent of the occupants are living there longer-term, paying a weekly or a monthly rate, according to a manager I talked to. Police carry rubbing alcohol when they visit, to kill bed bug eggs on their shoes.
The hotel is rife with criminal activity. Assaults. Drunk calls. Drugs. Stealing. Police and paramedics are called at least several times a week. Almost every call is related to alcohol and drugs.
"You go in rooms and, to be kind, it's unpleasant," said Capt. Bryan Grella, who has worked out of the downtown station for 15 years. "I've seen trash piled up in a room. I've seen bedbugs."
Tenants tell him that they pay by the month.
"They will go there and drink themselves, sometimes, to death," he said. "There's nobody checking on them."
Once in a while a tourist will mistake the Inn for a legitimate hotel. This may be because of its website, which features pleasant pictures of a modern establishment that looks nothing like the actual Inn. The site pitches the hotel to families and offers a "Double Bubble Romance Retreat" that comes with "a commemorative ice bucket with two personal-sized bottles of bubbly." (A Google search suggests this language was lifted from other hotel sites).
Reviews on TripAdvisor describe what happens when these unsuspecting guests check in:
"On arrival there were lots of people hanging out by the front door who were drunk and smoking. One was throwing up in the bushes next to the front door."
"I was afraid to walk on the carpet or in the bathroom with bare feet."
"We slept with a chair wedged under the doorknob as well as shoving the dresser against it. The APD should shut this place down as an innocent guest is going to be murdered there, no doubt about it."
"A great place to stay if you want to die."
"DO NOT EVER book here."
The Inn is a private business but it's expensive for the public, taking far more than its share of police and Anchorage Fire Department time. Paramedics visit on average every four days. On average, police visit more than 400 times a year. Last year, there were 187 police calls for what are considered "nuisance problems" at the hotel, one of the highest nuisance-call rates in the city. Nuisance calls are for things that can be improved with better management -- things like drug- and alcohol-related disturbances. Having more than 100 calls at a commercial business means APD will start charging the operator/owner a $500-per-call penalty. Inlet Inn has an outstanding bill of $16,000.
A handful of other low-end hotels have similarly high nuisance call rates. The difference between those hotels and the Inlet Inn is that the Inn has done nothing to improve the situation, according to Sgt. Mark Rein, who oversees the call program.
Usually in an excessive call situation, police will meet with a business, agree on a plan to improve the problem, and then waive some of the penalty if the business follows through. APD offered suggestions to the Inn last year and waived call charges for a couple months. But the problem continued. APD tried to follow up, Rein said.
"The owner didn't want to meet. The manager didn't want to sit down with us," he said.
The problems persist. Already this year, there have been at least 82 nuisance calls (the total call number is more than double that). If the nuisance calls continue at this rate, there will be more than in 2011.
Police have been negotiating with the operator of the hotel, a woman named Boo Lee. Lee is president and majority owner of K & B Management, which lists the hotel address as its business address. A minority partner, Kang Lee, also owns the barber shop inside the hotel.
Lee and Kang are also part-owners of the Black Angus in Fairview. The Black Angus has had excessive police call issues as well, but it is managed by Lee's son, who has been cooperative with police, Rein said. After the Brother Francis and the Inlet Inn, Black Angus is one of the most frequently visited spots for paramedics from the downtown station, according to Grella.
When I tried to contact Lee through the Inn, I was told first that she was on vacation and later that I would need an interpreter because she speaks only Korean. I went to the Black Angus and asked her son to contact her. He agreed, but she never called. Eventually, an Inlet Inn manager, Michael Corpuz, called me back.
I told him police said the hotel wasn't cooperative and I asked if the thought that was fair.
"In some forms I would say that was unfair," he said. "It would be the same way that if I were to tell the police how to do their job."
The hotel, he explained, had a humanitarian goal: to provide low-cost housing to a fragile population.
"A lot of the people that stay with us can't afford the better housing, some of them can't even afford long-term housing," he said. They put together enough money for a room, he said, and it gets them off the streets. Former tenants have died in camps, he said. What the Inn offers is especially important in the winter, he said. The hotel keeps people from freezing to death, he said.
"We take a lot of these transients in and we believe it's a community problem. It's not just our problem."
Couldn't people go to a shelter? I asked. Shelters don't work for everyone, he said.
Are guests using drugs? "We don't condone drug use," he said.
Are guests abusing alcohol? "I know there's drinking and, of course, it's a wet hotel," he said.
I asked about the deaths. He said the hotel had an unusual number of tenants with medical problems.
Why do people call the police so often?
"My personal feeling is that people who do dial 911, they feel there is an injustice," he said. "If they have a cell phone they pick it up and dial 911 without thinking."
His opinion was that police hadn't done the necessary follow-up with his boss. They would have better luck, he said, if they used a Korean interpreter.
I checked in with Rein after that. He said his unit has a Korean- speaking officer who would be happy to help out. He said he offered Lee that option. She is also welcome to bring her own interpreter. She didn't respond, he said.
APD is beginning to explore the process of criminal abatement, Rein said. That would mean the city would get a court order to seize the property and shut the hotel down.
The only other option, he said, would be for the owner of the Inn property to take action. So far, Rein said, the owner has just passed police warning letters back to Lee.
I looked up the building owner in public records. What I found: Lee's landlords are some of the state's most prominent business people. More about that in Monday's column. (Read second part)