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Some Chugiak trailer park tenants have been without running water for months

Published: Oct. 30, 2020 at 7:42 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Amid a surging pandemic, Alaskans living at the Forest Park Trailer Court in Chugiak have to haul water daily in order to flush their toilets and wash their hands.

The entrance of Michele Murphy’s home is full of donated water bottles and empty milk jugs.

The bottles came from the Salvation Army; she uses them for drinking water. She takes the milk jugs to a nearby gas station to fill up with water every day.

“It takes two and a half of these to flush the toilet,” Murphy explained, holding up an empty milk jug as she walked to her kitchen sink.

She turned on the faucet and stood still.

“You can’t even hear that it’s trying,” she said, after a few moments of dry silence.

Friday marked 170 days since she last had running water.

“We should be able to wash our own hands,” she said. “I haven’t taken a shower in my own house in six months.”

At the end of August, Murphy and her neighbors received 271-day eviction notices.

“We’ve done nothing wrong. We just want water because I’m a human, I have needs. I mean, why do we pay for something we don’t get?” she said.

Hauling water is exhausting and paying for showers for her family of four and the occasional hotel stay is expensive, but Murphy says moving is not an affordable option.

Murphy said her son has a brain tumor. In order to save money for medical expenses, they moved to the trailer park two years ago. They purchased the trailer, which they still owe $11,000 on, and they rent the space it’s sitting on for $490 a month.

Not only would moving the trailer cost thousands of dollars, but she hasn’t found a park that will accept it.

“This is a 1974. I’ve now called nine parks and no place will accept anything older than an ’80,” she said.

This isn’t the first water-related issue at Forest Park. The trailer park has been under a boil water notice since May of 2018. And last winter, water flooded the park then froze, causing problems for residents, including several vehicles that got stuck.

The State of Alaska filed a lawsuit against the property owners in January of 2018, according to online court records.

Then, in August of this year, Alaska Legal Services filed a second suit on behalf of several of the residents, including Murphy. The complaint alleges property owners Paul and Valerie Ritz are “slumlords” who “collect space rent while failing to provide safe drinkable water or little to no water at all.”

On Oct. 2, a judge granted the plaintiffs request for a preliminary injunction.

“Defendants are HEREBY ORDERED to take immediate steps to provide all of the plaintiffs with an adequate supply of drinking water so that they can bathe, wash their hands, wash their dishes, drink, and use their toilets,” the order, signed by Superior Court Judge Jennifer Henderson, states.

When reached by phone Friday, Valerie Ritz said she could not speak with Alaska’s News Source. She later followed up by text and said she was following the advice of her attorney.

Another text message received from her number a short time later said, “The owners are really sorry this has happened. The older water infrastructure has been damaged beyond repair from the 2018 earthquake. Despite many repairs having been made since the earthquake, an engineer has deemed it no longer fixable.”

Valerie Ritz did not provide requested documentation of her claim that an engineer assessed the water system.

Residents growing impatient with the lack of clean, adequate water reached out to lawmakers and Anchorage officials.

In a letter dated Oct. 23, Anchorage Building Official Bob Doehl said his office became aware of the issues on Oct. 22 and formed a plan for temporary relief. He estimated 150 residents live in 30 to 32 occupied units on the property.

“I have determined that the lack of water makes these mobile homes dangerous buildings in accordance with AMC 23.70.702.1. Due to owners' not paying for repairs and the lack of available resources to accommodate displacing the occupants, particularly during a surging pandemic, I am directing certain actions pursuant to AMC 23.70.708.5.,” the letter states. “Although the MOA will contract for these actions, we will seek compensation from the property.”

“We received complaints last week and determined we had to do something,” Doehl said during an interview on Friday. “We have no idea how it got to this point or lingered so long.”

A short-term fix rolled onto the property later in the afternoon. A heated, 30 foot-long Conex box will hold 3,000 gallons of clean drinking water, and the city has contracted with a company to haul in 500 gallons of drinkable water six times a day in order to supply the new water distribution point.

On Saturday, volunteers and local nonprofit groups plan to go to the property and help residents haul water.

“The cool thing about living in Alaska is Alaskans and how they really come together when their neighbors need a hand,” said Doehl.

The city’s next step will be to attempt to bring a well on the property into service under appropriate public water source standards, then hook that water source to the distribution point.

Doehl said the Anchorage Assembly appropriated $100,000 to begin the effort and his office will carefully account for the money spent to get residents water, then the city will then bill the property owners. If the bill does not receive a response, the city will put a lien on the property.

The city is also connecting residents with housing resources to begin working to help them form plans to relocate.

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