It's a balmy Friday morning, and Ken Booth is sitting on a step outside the Budget Motel. All his worldly possessions are being stacked around him before they are packed into a rusted out blue 1980s Buick Regal sedan. Booth says he's lived at the Budget for about six years, having moved there from a place on Vernon Street when he had nowhere else to go. On a fixed income with few prospects, the Budget gave him a room without a deposit or a credit check and he took it.
He watches as his roommate and friend empties their room. There's an old standing fan, which looks to be carrying years of dust and grime. There's an old bicycle tire, a beat up blue cooler and several dresser drawers filled with what look to be magazine clippings and scraps of paper. Booth is one of at least 40 people being forced to leave the extended-stay motel by the city of Eureka, which has deemed the place a public health hazard and unfit for human habitation. Eureka police officers are keeping watch as Booth and his neighbors pack their things. Crews from New Life Service Company are standing by, ready to board the place up as tenants leave.
"We're getting fucked," Booth says, with equal parts frustration and resignation in his voice, his round cheeks flushed. To be fair, it seems that has been the state of many of the Budget Motel's tenants for years and Booth doesn't deny it. He and a roommate paid $725 a month for their two-bedroom dwelling, which came without a kitchen, with moldy carpets, peeling paint and — in Booth's words — enough cockroaches to fill a city. According to officials, they lived alongside prostitutes, drug addicts and drug dealers, and those desperate enough to withstand the chaos. For his part, Booth says he kept to himself and had no problems.
As Booth talks, a woman rolls up on her motorized scooter, her gray sweat pants soaked wet against its seat. The smell of urine permeates the air. Booth asks the woman where she's headed and she says she's going to take the $1,600 relocation assistance check the city will be doling out to Budget residents, spending a couple of nights at the Motel 6 and catching a bus down to Los Angeles, where she has family that can take her in.
"I hate L.A.," Booth says.
"You and me both, but it's a roof over my head," she says.
Robert Hager mills around nearby, his long hair, streaked gray, tucked underneath a U.S. Army baseball hat. Hager's a military veteran, having served in a field artillery unit in the mid-1970s. He says his wife, Kathleen, is also a vet. "She was a U.S. Army Ranger," Hager says, explaining that she's now wheelchair bound up in Room 114, which the couple has called home for almost a year. "She jumped out of perfectly good airplanes," Hager continues. "She's a nutbag. She married me."
The Hagers had arrived in Humboldt County about 13 months earlier from Janesville, Wisconsin, drawn to the Pacific Coast and a quiet life. They take in about $1,800 a month in disability pay, and stayed at the Royal Inn for a few days when they arrived in town. After a few weeks staying at the Vet's Center, they moved into the Budget, where they got a small room for $650 a month, no deposit needed.
Hager says they soon found the roof leaked, soaking the room's carpet, leaving the place damp and moldy and full of cockroaches. Asked why they didn't leave, Hager says they had nowhere to go. "We don't have any kinfolk," he says, adding that other local extended stay options are more expensive than the Budget; the Royal Inn rents rooms for about $1,000 a month while Christie's charges $1,300. Now that the Budget's closing, he says he's not sure what's next. "I have no clue," he says. The plan, he says, is to wait around for the check from the city then pack up everything he can carry and the couple's cat and wheel Kathleen around looking for someplace to spend the night.
While the Budget Motel has been a thorn in the city's side for at least a decade — full of code violations and a magnet for police calls — it seems its fate was sealed in August.
David Kushwaha, the motel's absentee owner, had fallen two months behind on the water bill. With the account delinquent more than $4,000, the city made the decision to turn off the water. Now, this had happened several times already this year, according to Eureka Code Enforcement Manager Brian Issa, but each time it prompted the Budget's owner or manager to promptly pay the bill. This time was different. A city work crew turned off the water the morning of Aug. 24 and by nightfall the bill hadn't been paid. The following day Kushwaha wrote the city a check, which bounced. He then tried paying with a credit card, Issa said, but it was declined.
Residents — about 17 of whom were Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services clients, including some children — started complaining. Some called DHHS and eventually word trickled up to DHHS Director Connie Beck. Eureka City Manager Greg Sparks says the only reason the water was ultimately turned back on — after being off for three days — was that Beck called the city and insisted, saying DHHS would pay the bill.
About the same time, the city was also cracking down on Kushwaha for being delinquent on about three quarters of a year worth of transient occupancy tax payments to the city, a delinquency that included another bounced check. In an interview with the Journal around the time, Sparks also lamented that the motel had been the source of almost 200 calls for police service in the prior 12 months. "Obviously, we're looking at this pretty closely," Sparks said at the time.
A few days later, on Aug. 30, the Budget made local headlines again when someone was attacked with a hatchet in the parking lot, leaving a bloody scene surrounding a black Nissan sedan. Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills reached a boiling point. "That place is a complete disaster," he said at the time. "We're going to have code enforcement come up with a plan to either shut them down or figure it out."
But Mills conceded that the situation was tricky, especially as Eureka and the county of Humboldt were in the midst of a joint campaign to house 30 homeless people in 60 days. Shuttering the Budget would mean taking housing — albeit substandard housing — away from at least 40 people, and more than 100 by some estimates. "That's the puzzle we're trying to figure out," Mills said. "How do we get that thing changed and hold (Kushwaha) accountable without putting people on the street."
From the city's perspective, that ultimately proved impossible. In the second week of September, a team of police, code enforcement officers, building officials and health inspectors descended on the Budget with court warrants and documented almost 350 code violations. They found pervasive mold and rot; rooms with missing heaters, sinks and toilets; exposed hazardous and unpermitted wiring. They found rooms that had been recently scorched by a fire that now had people living in them. Some rooms had urine and feces on the floor — whether that's the result of the water shut-off is anybody's guess. And in nearly every room inspected, including the manager's office, they found pervasive cockroach and bedbug infestations.
On Sept. 19, the city served the Budget Motel and its tenants a notice to vacate the premises, saying the place was being condemned as a public health hazard. Kushwaha asked a Humboldt County Superior Court judge to block the order but, after hearing that about 100 of the 400 current code violations were found on the property during a 2011 inspection and were still unaddressed, the judge backed the city's plan, finding the violations were "hazardous and pose an imminent threat to occupants of the motel and the surrounding community."
If you scan through the listings of TripAdvisor.com for any of Kushwaha's six motel properties, you'll see similar tales.
The Crown Inn in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, has four reviews, all of which rate the place as "terrible." One reviewer tells of a room with no heater, scores of cockroaches and no pillow cases. Another warned that the hallway had a vomit-inducing stench.
The Rose Garden Inn and Suites in Ridgecrest, California, one of two neighboring motel properties Kushwaha purchased there in 2004 for a combined $1.18 million, has eight reviews — one "average" and seven "terrible." "Drugs change hands in the parking lot at all hours. Management is nonexistent except to partake of said drugs," writes one reviewer. "Just disgusting. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid," writes another.
The Villa Town in Lubbock, Texas, has five reviews, four "terrible" and one "excellent," which was entered by Kushwaha himself. The other four rant of "bedbugs," "rats," "roaches," "mice," "spiders" and "sheets that smell like bodies."
Then there's the Green Valley Motel up in Orick, which was red tagged by the county back in 2013 for leaking roofs, falling ceiling tiles, electrical problems and, yes, cockroaches. The motel later reopened and was operating as of late last year, though the Journal was unable to determine its current status.
Mind you, Kushwaha doesn't live at any of these properties. According to court records and documents in the Humboldt's County Recorder's Office, Kushwaha and his wife, Amanda, live in Oxnard, California, in a six-bedroom, four-bathroom, 3,400-square-foot home they purchased in 2005 for $579,000.
But as the bounced check and the declined credit card hint, it seems the walls may be closing in around Kushwaha. According to documents in the recorder's office, there are three liens on the Budget Motel totaling $81,000. Those include one from the California Labor Commissioner stemming from an award to a motel employee for unpaid overtime work, another from a collection agency for nearly $50,000 in unpaid personal medical bills and one from a local plumbing company for work done on the Budget in 2009 that was never paid. Additionally, the Orick Motel has a $75,000 lien on it stemming from unpaid wastewater treatment work.
But Kushwaha's troubles aren't just limited to Humboldt. His Crown Motel in Arkansas has been the focus of numerous public meetings and an ongoing effort by the city to clean it up or shutter it. In fact, last October, police officials lamented that the place had been the source of 100 calls for service in a six-month period, putting it on pace with the Budget. Additionally, the Jefferson County Arkansas tax collector published a notice indicating Kushwaha's behind on property tax payments.
Meanwhile, last September in Lubbock, the city entered into a contract with the Kashwahas under which they agreed to a payment plan to make good on $75,000 in delinquent taxes. Then, in May, the city joined Lubbock County, a local school district and a hospital district in filing a civil lawsuit against Kushwaha stemming from his operation of the Villa Town. Calls placed to Lubbock officials to get more information about the suit weren't returned by the Journal's deadline.
It's worth noting that in October of last year, Kushwaha filed paperwork with the Humboldt County Recorder's Office to transfer ownership of both the Budget Motel and the Green Valley Motel to limited liability corporations set up in their names, the Budget Hotel LLC and the Green Valley Motel LLC, respectively. Amanda Kushwaha is listed as the agent for both.
Why transfer property to an LLC?
"First and foremost, LLCs limit personal vulnerability to potential lawsuits related to the property," according to Jeff Weaver at Legalzoom.com. When a property is owned by an LLC, "the owner's risk exposure would be insulated by the protection of the company, leaving only the assets owned by the LLC (as opposed to all of the owner's personal assets) exposed to potential lawsuits."
The city of Eureka intends to recoup the costs of shuttering the Budget from Kushwaha — including the roughly $48,000 in relocation assistance payments and the costs for police and work crews — even it means putting a lien on the property. But that may prove akin to squeezing blood from a turnip, given the other liens on the property. There's also the fact that back in 2005, Kushwaha offered up the Budget Motel as collateral in order to get a $1.6 million loan from Comerica Bank. What he did with that money is unclear (the Journal was unable to determine when Kushwaha purchased his properties in Arkansas and Texas) but it appears the bank has followed up on the Budget Motel, repeatedly sending a Redding appraiser, Charles Ryan, out to inspect it as a part of the lender's "asset review" process.
Attempts to reach Kushwaha for comment for this story were unsuccesful.
As morning turned to afternoon on Sept. 23 at the Budget Motel, things have calmed some. The parking lot is half empty and only about a dozen residents remain amid the discarded mattresses, broken mirrors and other debris that collected there. As EPD officers and code inspectors look on, Beck, the DHHS director, and a couple members of her communications staff have donned rubber gloves and are working with the tenants that remain, trying to make sure they have somewhere to go.
Booth and his roommate have packed all they're taking with them into that beat up old sedan, and head off to a motel, at least for the night. Robert and Kathleen Hager, meanwhile, have packed up their cat and a couple of backpacks, which lay piled in front of Kathleen's wheelchair along with a guitar. With their check from the city, the Hagers say they're off to stay in a local motel that has room for them. A county worker pulls up, and Robert wheels Kathleen over, out the freshly fenced parking lot, across the sidewalk and helps her into the waiting car. As he puts their belongings in the trunk, a passing motorists lets out a scream of approval as he passes, apparently giddy the Budget Motel is no more. A few city and county workers nearby shake their heads and go about their business. As the car carrying the Hagers pulls away, a police officer locks the gate as work crews board up the last of the Budget Motel's doors and windows.
Moments earlier, Robert surveyed the quiet parking lot and he and Kathleen's meager pile of possessions.
"We threw most of our stuff away because it was so full of cockroaches," he says softly. "All we got is us and this. The rest of it — they can burn it along with the rest of this place."