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Low-income housing residents adrift after fire

Thu., May 13, 2010

Temporary rooms costly, unavailable by end of week

More than two dozen residents displaced because of a suspected arson face homelessness in a few days as nonprofit agencies struggle to find money to provide them temporary housing.

Firefighters were called to the HiFumi En Apartments, 926 E. Eighth Ave., early Saturday morning.

The building is for low-income residents and is owned and managed by Northeast Washington Housing Solutions. Residents must be at least 55 years old or be disabled. They pay one-third of their monthly income – sometimes less than $100, said Steve Cervantes, executive director of Housing Solutions.

Cervantes said 41 people lived in the building, but 15 found temporary housing with friends or family. The other residents are being housed at a Post Falls motel – an unbudgeted arrangement that is costing Northeast Washington Housing Solutions about $1,400 a day. He said new housing must be found by the end of the week because the motel is booked.

Social service agencies and city officials are meeting today to discuss options to house the displaced residents. Cervantes said it could take six weeks to reopen the upstairs of the HiFumi En and even longer for the bottom floor.

In the meantime, temporary accommodations at local hotels and motels are extremely difficult to find, particularly on Lilac Festival weekend.

On Wednesday, the Rockwood Retirement Communities offered apartments and meal services for six HiFumi En residents on a temporary basis, said Alan Curryer, president and CEO.

Cervantes said two other recent fires at the HiFumi En building also were suspected arsons. About six months ago, someone threw a cigarette in a trash can. That incident caused little damage, but a second fire about three months ago was more serious. That time, someone set fire to a mattress left in a hallway. Cervantes said quick action by a resident prevented serious damage.

“There are too many fires,” said HiFumi En resident Betty Bachmeyier, 59, who doesn’t want to go back until authorities catch the arsonist.

She said the draft from Saturday’s fire blew open her door on the first floor and she saw black smoke fill the hallway. “It was pretty toxic in there.”

She closed the door and kicked out her front window screen to escape with just the clothes on her back. Later, escorted by firefighters, the residents were allowed to go back to their rooms and collect a few things such as medicines.

Northeast Washington Housing Solutions had begun to install cameras in response to the earlier fires, but they weren’t yet operational.

“We have to go above and beyond to make them feel secure,” Cervantes said.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said Tuesday that investigators have made progress into an arson investigation but that no arrests had been made.

One resident, Kristi Daniel, remained in satisfactory condition Wednesday at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

In a phone interview from her hospital room Tuesday, Daniel said she was awakened by her dogs as firetrucks arrived.

“The fire alarm is not loud enough to wake you up from a deep sleep,” she said.

Daniel, 59, tried to leave her upstairs apartment using the shortest path, but she soon was overcome by smoke.

Firefighters heard her calling for help and took her from the building.

“They found me trying to crawl back up the stairwell to get some air,” she said.

She said she is feeling better, but she’s still suffering from smoke inhalation.

She planned to move to the Post Falls motel if released this week.

Daniel said she’s unhappy with Northeast Washington Housing Solutions.

“They have been very unresponsive and have made it real difficult to get property out,” she said.

And she said the group didn’t do enough to stop the arsonist.

The most recent fire was started in furniture that was to be given away and was being stored in the common area. Given the recent history in the building, Daniel said she didn’t think management should have allowed furniture to sit.

“There were a couch and a chair just waiting for days to be set on fire,” she said. “It’s been really scary living there.”

Spokane’s Human Services Director Jerrie Allard said the city is checking with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to see if it can use a grant to help pay for temporary housing for those displaced by the fire.

The city won the $142,500 grant earlier this year to help relocate low-income people forced to move from their apartments. It’s unclear, however, if it can be used by people displaced by fire, she said.

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