James approached the front desk of the Knights Inn and flashed the cellophane wrapper from his cigarette box. He raised it into full view and pointed at its contents, a brown speck.
An ever-present nuisance at the motel according to Fort Worth Code Compliance, bedbugs don’t warrant much concern at the Knights Inn. Bitten guests garner no sympathy. A refund is out of the question. Motel owner Anil Patidar showed little interest in hearing James’ complaint about the little bloodsucker he plucked from the mattress in Room 112.
James, who asked that his real name not be used, had made an earlier trip to the front desk and was told maintenance would soon come to his room. No one did. Had someone come, the person would have seen the bedbugs’ red pinprick marks scattered on the back of James’ girlfriend.
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“Sir,” Patidar said to James, “just go to your room. Someone should be there.”
After a few more minutes of futile arguing, James exited the lobby, astonished.
Patidar had refused to state his name to the Star-Telegram and identified himself as the motel’s manager, not the owner. He would later say of James and the bedbug: “That guy had only one bedbug ... let them go to the hospital or whatever they want to do.”
For more than a decade, no hotel in Fort Worth has proved a bigger nuisance to Code Compliance officials, police who patrol the neighborhood and those who rent Patidar’s shabby rooms.
So why can’t the city just close hotels and motels with recurring records of gross negligence like Knights Inn?
Cities give businesses ample chance to comply with code standards, and Knights Inn has made a sport out of dealing with Code Compliance — getting cited, closing rooms, making minimal fixes, getting reinspected for $125, reopening rooms, then lapsing and starting the process all over.
“It’s a constant cycle with the Knights Inn based on our inspections,” said Wyndie Turpen, Consumer Health Superintendent for Code Compliance.
Research into other Tarrant County cities shows Euless and Hurst have no current major code violators among their hotels and motels. Arlington, Haltom City and Bedford all reported violators, but none as egregious or requiring the unusual emergency intervention as the city of Fort Worth has now undertaken with Knights Inn.
Warning from City Hall
This particular Knights Inn is less a motel than a tenement, a stop not for business travelers, weary drivers or out-of-town tourists, but rather a dwelling one industry source called a “transitional housing outlet.”
Most staying at Knights Inn are low wage-earners, their commonality not being skin color, but the darker shade of their work collars. Some have young children, some are married, some are not. Some have bad credit, some have drug or alcohol addictions. For others, it’s mental illness. A significant number are stuck somewhere between or working toward more permanent housing. They string together enough cash to keep a room, it seems quite often, indefinitely, grudgingly accepting substandard living conditions and unsafe surroundings.
They come to the Knights Inn, located on the Interstate 30 service road at the mouth of the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden Las Vegas Trail area, for its low rates and no-credit-card-needed policy. Minus the rooms Code Compliance closes on a rotating basis, Knights Inn on most nights is at full occupancy.
Last week, Fort Worth city leaders summoned the 49-year-old Patidar and his wife, Hetal Patel, to City Hall. City attorneys, police officers and Code Compliance officials took the rare step of issuing a final warning: Meet code standards and report criminal activity on the premises, or face an abatement lawsuit that could shut him down for a year.
Last week’s City Hall meeting was an initial step in the emerging Las Vegas Trail Revitalization Project spearheaded by new city councilman Brian Byrd. Two weeks earlier, the owners of Mira Monte Apartments, at the corner of Las Vegas Trail and Calmont Avenue, came to City Hall and received a similar warning to better protect its law-abiding residents or risk further intervention.
“We will continue to use every legal and economic means available to ensure proper operation of our city’s apartments and hotels,” Byrd said, issuing a warning that should reverberate beyond Knights Inn.
On the third-floor balcony, a 43-year-old construction worker sat in a desk chair in front of his room, a beaten-up AC window unit next to him somehow still whirring. He asked for anonymity for fear of losing his room before he ripped the motel’s lack of basic services. Just overhead are the undersides of eaves that are falling apart or have sizable chunks simply missing. Wires and cables hang down from the roof.
Housekeeping is essentially nonexistent — a broom with a hand towel draped over the bristles serves as a mop, bathrooms go uncleaned, bedsheets go unchanged unless specifically requested, drains are missing covers and often clog, and bath towels are often worn, stained and ripped. There’s no laundry, a lone vending machine in the lobby sits almost always empty and the internet and cable connections work intermittently. The old box TV set in his room has lacked a remote control since the day he checked in on a $32-a-day special. His room has no telephone.
“They say if you don’t like it, just move, you know ... which is ridiculous,” the man said. “People really need to get them a lawyer.”
Patidar, who lives less than five miles away from Knights Inn but a world apart in the gated Montserrat neighborhood, declined multiple interview requests. His wife, believed by city officials to be the on-site manager, said they are cooperating with the city.
Public health threat
Independently owned and run as a family business, Knights Inn is a brand under Wyndham Hotel Group. This establishment’s decaying exterior and dingy interior attracts roaches and rodents that consistently lead Code Compliance to deem rooms too unsafe or too unhealthy for occupants. Currently eight rooms are closed. Over the last year, 27 rooms have been locked by the city.
Diana Hernandez of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health said squalid conditions like those at Knights Inn contribute to social, environmental and mental and physical health problems, and on a larger scale, point to the critical shortage of public housing.
“These motels have been creating alternatives to shelters, for example, but also alternatives to stable, affordable housing,” Hernandez said. “His place of business is now functioning in a different capacity than intended. It is not supposed to be permanent housing. He should answer to housing code restrictions.”
Two Wyndham officials did not respond to multiple inquiries over weeks from the Star-Telegram.
Code Compliance also often can’t get the full picture during an inspection. Only unoccupied rooms, or rooms from which a guest made a complaint, are available for inspection. On a Sept. 19 inspection, only six rooms were available. None needed to be closed, although each room had a laundry list of repairs. On the previous inspection, only three rooms were available. Knights Inn has about 90 rooms open for business.
Individual rooms that don’t pass inspection are closed until brought up to code and re-inspected. All the while, rooms that have occupants, and potentially avoided an inspector’s eye for lengthy stretches, remain open for business.
That’s a big problem, said Karen Bell, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Bedbugs and roaches, she said, easily spread from one unit to another through cracks and holes in walls. Unkempt rooms attract rodents. All of which she said can trigger allergic reactions, impact children with asthma and cause insomnia and anxiety.
The in-ground pool is a health and safety hazard unto itself. Drained for years, several inches of green, stagnant water can be found in the deep end collecting an array of trash.
In 2008, the city formed a hotel and motel task force. Knights Inn started on its “High Risk” list and has stayed there. It is one of three hotels or motels in the city that requires the maximum four inspections per year. The other two are South Loop Inn at 6328 South Freeway and Dalworth Inn at 812 E. Felix St., according to Code Compliance. In 2009, the Buildings Standards Commission ordered a third three-story wing demolished at Knights Inn. Only the slab remains.
In 2011, the city sued Patidar’s company, Krisha Investments, over unpaid hotel occupancy taxes. The city received an injunction to shut down the motel, according to records. After the injunction was enforced for one day, Patidar paid half the amount owed, $21,758.60, and re-opened. He repaid the remaining balance over the next three months.
“It sounds like an obstinate owner, one they really need to partner with all the resources they have,” said Lt. Brandon Zachary, head of Euless’ Code Compliance department. “Not that we haven’t gone down the road in the past with the abatement issue, we got our ducks in a row, but we never had to wield that hammer.”
The abatement hammer
Chapter 125 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code is the abatement hammer the city now holds over Knights Inn. City attorneys are building their case involving both compliance and cops.
Statistics provided by the Fort Worth Police Department showed 60 “nuisance offenses” at the Knights Inn in the last 26 months. Twenty-one of those were a form of assault, while 34 were drug related.
“It’s pretty sad when you walk around the grounds and you see needles everywhere, and you see people just laying out on the ground, right in front of the office,” said Ashley Benge, 19, who moved with her fiance out of their $242-a-week Knights Inn room two weeks ago after staying there since July. “They can’t afford the room so they just lay right there in front of the office. They don’t say anything about it.”
In August, a man two doors down from their room got shot.
“He didn’t die,” assured maintenance man Clint Martin, 48, who took the job about six months ago for $11 an hour and a room on the property for which he pays $250 a week. “I don’t know who the guy is, but they did shoot him. ... That room is still rented by the same guy that called the ambulance.”
The day after the City Hall meeting, the man on the third-floor balcony said word circulating around the motel was that anyone who didn’t have a room would be shooed from the property.
According to two Fort Worth police officers who attended last week’s meeting with Patidar, it was recommended that Knights Inn employ professional security, or dramatically increase the number of times employees walk the grounds. If the city doesn’t see progress in code compliance and crime deterrence, it has promised an abatement lawsuit.
“If nothing comes of it, the city has to look at their options,” senior assistant city attorney Chris Mosley said.
Mike Bass, who heads Arlington’s Code Compliance department, recalls two instances for which his city filed abatement lawsuits some 10 years ago.
“Those hotels no longer exist,” Bass said. “Our goal is to seek compliance prior to enlisting the use of other legal remedies.”
Fort Worth city attorneys Mosley and Harvey Frye said they have the same goal.
It can be done
America’s Best Value Inn next door is comparably like stepping into a resort paradise. It also costs about $40 more for a single room, and, unlike the Knights Inn, requires a credit card.
Clean, modern and well-lit, Best Value saw nine “nuisance offenses” on its property over the last 26 months compared with the 60 at Knights Inn, as well as 60 at the Relax Inn just to the west of Knights Inn.
Relax Inn, under pressure from police and code to clean up, has remodeled the exterior and placed “No Trespassing” and “Guest Parking Only” signs throughout the parking lot. Earlier this year 37 rooms were closed because of violations.
In August and September, Fort Worth police report the Relax Inn had three “nuisance offenses.” It’s too limited of a sample period to determine if efforts to comply are working and will last, although Officer Richard Grinalds, the neighborhood police officer for that section of Las Vegas Trail, has seen promising signs. He is hopeful Patidar will finally invest in his property.
“There has been some progress made there,” Grinalds said. “However, they are in it for the dollar. They’re only going to do what’s minimum. They’re very difficult to work with. They have very deep pockets and they know just what to do to keep them out of trouble.”
Still, any progress is positive. Before the City Hall meeting, Martin, the Knights Inn maintenance man, described several projects underway, including installation of metal door frames and dead bolts, new tile in bathrooms, replacing vanities and updating plumbing.
A start. But Knights Inn is no weekend project.
“This is more than maintenance,” Martin said. “Most of this is remodel.”
Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan.