Unlicensed Iowa hotel cited for pests, filth and fire hazards but remains open

By: - November 29, 2022 5:34 pm

The Hartwood Inn on Gilbert Street in Charles City has been operating for one year without a license, despite dozens of health and safety violations. (Photo via Google Earth)

An Iowa hotel has been operating for one year without the required state license, despite dozens of health and safety violations cited by regulators.

The hotel’s owner, Gilbert Starble, says the Hartwood Inn of Charles City has served as a home for what he calls “criminals, ex-convicts, recovering addicts and poor people.” In recent months, state inspectors have reported finding space heaters, pizza ovens and camp stoves in guests’ rooms, and also reported inadequate fire protection and smoke detectors.

Over the past six months, the 36-room hotel has repeatedly failed state inspections to operate as a licensed hotel, while city officials have refused to approve its operation as an apartment building.

In September, an inspector found “blood-like stains” in a room where a person had recently died, as well as human and animal feces on the floors of other rooms.

Despite the findings of regulators, Starble has continued to rent rooms at the Hartwood Inn throughout 2022, for both short- and long-term stays — essentially functioning as both an unlicensed hotel and an unapproved apartment building.

A state inspector’s photo showing a camp stove inside one of the rooms at the Hartwood Inn in Charles City. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals)

Paul Hughes, a building-enforcement official with Charles City, said Tuesday that state officials are aware the Hartwood Inn is currently occupied by renters or guests, despite the lack of a license and what he called the “dangerous” conditions that have existed there.

“It’s just really bad,” he said. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t put a guest in there.”

Hughes said it’s his understanding the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, which oversees hotels in Iowa, intends to “send a letter” to Starble within the next few days, but added that he’s not at liberty to discuss the details.

Asked what DIA intends to do about the Hartwood Inn, department spokeswoman Stefanie Bond said Tuesday she couldn’t respond to that question but would attempt to do so Wednesday.

City and state officials have cited the business for numerous violations this year, but the citations, as yet, have not been tied to any fines or penalties.

In late August, Charles City took Starble to civil court, alleging the Hartwood Inn had failed to maintain its hotel license and was operating the business as an apartment building in violation of zoning restrictions.

The city is seeking a civil penalty of $750 for each day the violation “is permitted to exist,” as well as a court order requiring Starble to comply with Iowa law by obtaining a hotel license. Starble has yet to file a response in the case.

Latest inspection uncovers more problems

On Oct. 28, a DIA inspector visited the inn in response to complaints that it was in its 11th month of operating without a license, had a bedbug problem, and did not have running water. The visit was also considered a “pre-opening inspection” because, although the inn was fully operational, it was trying to secure a new license and had failed its pre-opening inspection in September.

“This facility has been operating without a current hotel license since November 2021,” the inspector wrote in her report, “so this portion of the complaint is verified. There was no evidence of bed bugs and running water was available in all rooms inspected today so these portions of the complaint are not verified.”

The inspector, Tina Ahlberg, was accompanied by a DIA supervisor, Rose Haukedahl, and a Charles City building official who was there to collect evidence of any city code violations.

Ahlberg cited the hotel for 15 violations, noting that there were no smoke detectors in four of the 30 rooms designated for use by transient guests. Ahlberg also reported she was unable to gain access to 17 of the hotel rooms, but didn’t explain why that was.

“Due to basic requirements not met, and observed active pest activity, the hotel license is not approved,” Ahlberg wrote in her report.

In addition to peeling paint and soiled laundry carts that were marked, “Clean laundry only,” Ahlberg made note of unspecified “evidence of vermin” in two rooms; “strong, foul odors” in four rooms; stained carpeting in eight rooms; fur from an unidentified animal on the floor of one unoccupied room; walls in eight rooms that were dirty or had holes in them; and doors that “showed signs of impact” in four rooms.

She also noted torn or missing window screens in five rooms; room refrigerators that were soiled; damaged window coverings and wall lamps; an outdoor Dumpster that was at capacity and not due to be emptied; and furniture that was dirty, had deep gouges or was missing hardware.

In addition, the bedding in 10 rooms was soiled or stained; six rooms had mattresses with holes in them; and four rooms had toilets that were not secured to the floor. Ventilation fans weren’t working in 12 of the rooms.

Ahlberg also noted that while all of the rooms were posted as non-smoking rooms, one room had a strong odor of smoke.

The city’s building inspector noted only a few issues in his report, including mouse droppings that indicated a possible infestation; missing fan covers; a broken outlet; and, in one room, the lack of a ground-fault interrupter to prevent electrical shocks.

City rejected apartment proposal

Starble, the Hartwood Inn’s owner, has said the violations cited at the hotel stem from an “unwise decision” on his part to treat the hotel as an apartment complex in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a serious, negative impact on the hotel industry.

“The violations were clearly due to this unwise choice to provide homeless people, addicts, criminals, ex-convicts, recovering addicts and poor people with a place to stay,” he told the Iowa Capital Dispatch in September. “It just didn’t work out.”

Court records indicate Starble has sued several tenants for nonpayment of rent and accused at least two of them of assault. Starble is president of Hartwood Hospitality Labs. On the company’s website, Starble claims to be engaged in what he calls “opportunistic real estate development.”

The website indicates that at one time, Hartwood Inn was run as a 36-room motor lodge accompanied by a six-unit, multifamily “income property” consisting of what Starble called “tiny homes.”

In August, the city council refused a request from Starble to rezone the hotel property from commercial use to multifamily housing, the Charles City Press reported. That decision was made after the council learned the hotel had been operating without a license since last November.

At the time, council members also expressed concerned with Starble’s plan to convert at least some of the hotel into an apartment complex, noting a large number of police calls to the business in recent years.

Starble told the Capital Dispatch in September that he intended to treat the Hartwood Inn as a true hotel, providing lodging only for short-term guests. He said he may eventually seek the city’s approval to convert the property to dormitories for a faith-based school that would be dedicated to teaching “gospel music and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Inspectors find vermin, feces, blood

The Oct. 28 inspection at the Hartwood Inn followed several other inspections that have taken place this year while the hotel has remained open and unlicensed:

June 2, 2022: A state inspector examined three rooms at the hotel and cited the establishment for 11 violations, including hall stairs that were soiled or marred by litter, soiled carpeting, soiled mattresses and box springs, a room that was “not adequately treated for insects,” and another room that “had evidence of cockroaches.” The visit was in response to a complaint alleging a lack of pest control.

“Most rooms are rented weekly and monthly as apartments,” the inspector reported. “Only one to three rooms are used for transient guests.” Of the three rooms examined, the inspector reported, one was “closed until further notice due to an imminent health hazard” of some unspecified nature.

June 24, 2022: A state inspector attempted a “physical recheck” of the hotel and noted that there was no one in the office and “both” of the guest rooms that were ordered to be taken out of service on June 2 were being rented and were occupied. (The June 2 report suggests only one room was taken out of service.) The inspector reported she was unable to determine whether the hotel was in compliance with all regulations. In the report, she wrote: “If you wish to continue renting to transient guests, a hotel license is needed.”

July 14, 2022: Twenty violations were cited, with the inspector unable to gain access to the lobby and numerous other areas of the building. “Public interior halls were covered with litter and soiled floor covering,” the inspector reported, adding that some furniture and bedding was on a “sidewalk” in front of the rooms and was heavily soiled.

“Hotel is operating without a valid license,” the inspector reported. “Hotel is operating outside of the requirements for a transient guest.” The state visit was in response to complaints that Starble was renting rooms as if they were apartments and that the rooms had mold and did not meet fire-safety requirements.

“One of the rooms was marked as, ‘Private, No Trespassing,’ and the lobby was locked with no hours posted,” the inspector wrote. A DIA supervisor called Starble, who said he intended to “renew” his license – there was no license in place – and would continue to offer rooms for rent as a hotel. “Facility has been operating without a license,” the inspector wrote in her report. “Until license is applied, processed and pre-opening inspection conducted, the facility may not rent rooms to the transient guests or the public.”

Sept. 28, 2022: Twenty-three violations were cited, including the lack of a license while operating as a hotel. The inspector also made note of soiled floors, walls and ceilings; blood-like stains in a room where a person had recently died; human and animal feces on the floors; several rooms “in gross, unsanitary condition” with a strong odor; holes in the walls; soiled and stained drapes, furniture and carpet; evidence of vermin in several rooms; an “excess of garbage” in one room; a large number of flies in two rooms; inadequate ventilation; stained mattresses in nine rooms; lack of hotel towels; incomplete registration records for guests; and smoking was permitted in more than the maximum 20% of all rooms.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.