(Don't) Bite Me

Late last month, 10 tenants at a Skid Row residential hotel filed suit claiming the place was a complete dump, beset by an "infestation of vermin, rodents, roaches, and insects," not to mention busted plumbing and heating, missing smoke detectors, and other "dangerous" conditions. The place is rife with "serious housing code violations," says John Murcko, the Oakland lawyer representing the tenants.

Obviously, slummy housing on Sixth Street isn't exactly news. But this situation is different, because the property in question, the Rose Hotel, is owned by a nonprofit charity, Mercy Housing California, which is an offshoot of the Catholic Sisters of Mercy order. And Mercy Housing's raison d'être is to provide decent housing for the poor and disabled, for which it receives federal subsidies. Somehow, "decent" and "vermin" don't go together.

Larry Richards, who lives in Room 202, a closet-sized space packed to the ceiling with stuff, can tell you all about the vermin. On a recent evening, Richards, 48, gathered nine glass jars and lined them up: They were filled with mice — some 30 of them — Richards claimed he'd caught scurrying around his room. As one greasy brown critter struggled to escape, fearless hordes of cockroaches scampered across everything.

"Look at this place — it's infested," says Richards, who's spearheading the lawsuit. "This is your federal tax dollars being spent to abuse people like me."

Part of the problem, however, may lay with Richards. The guy's room is pretty much a pest magnet, brimming with trash and piles of food-laden paper plates. Richards, a Missouri native with a foot-long beard — who has difficulty walking due to a spinal tumor, and spends most of his time in a wheelchair — acknowledges that he needs to de-clutter and sanitize his place, either on his own or with outside help. He also admits that Mercy once tried to evict him because of the disastrous state of his living space (according to court records, in 2004). The organization, he says, blames him for "trashing their nice apartment." Richards is no stranger to litigation, either: He's sued Mercy before, as well as the Social Security Administration.

For its part, Mercy says it hasn't been served with the lawsuit and thus can't comment on the specifics. But, says spokeswoman Jennifer Kostka, "We do have pest control out there every other week," in a bid to keep the mice and bugs from taking over. The pesticide squad "[does] their best to work around the clutter." While Kostka couldn't say much about Richards because of confidentiality rules, she says Mercy has "tried to work with him in the past" to clean up his room.

After telling his story for an hour, Richards suggests I visit some of his fellow plaintiffs on the fourth floor, noting that they "have a terrible bedbug problem. "

I politely decline.

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