By Petula Dvorak and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 14, 2008
The fire that ripped through a four-story apartment building in Mount Pleasant yesterday, leaving almost 200 people homeless, came after years of complaints about living conditions from tenants and the D.C. government.
In recent months, the owners of the property had made repairs and were on the verge of settling a lawsuit brought by the tenants association. The building, where more than 7,000 housing code violations were recorded in recent years, is a shambles, and residents do not know when they might return.
Officials have not determined the cause of the fire at the Deauville building at 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW. The fire apparently began shortly before midnight Wednesday and continued into the morning. Firefighters said they were amazed that no resident was seriously hurt during the fire or the harrowing evacuation. Some residents had to climb out of windows and descend on ladders put up by firefighters. Others stumbled through smoke-filled stairwells. One firefighter suffered smoke inhalation.
Flames shot through the top half of the building in the first five-alarm blaze in the District in nearly 30 years. By contrast, the large fires last spring at Eastern Market and the Georgetown public library were three-alarm blazes.
In addition to the 85 apartment units at the Deauville, the building housed the Ethiopian Community Service Center, an outreach program that provides computer and language classes, counseling and youth programs. The fire also heavily damaged the Meridian Hill Baptist Church next door, where the roof collapsed and stained-glass windows shattered. A temporary homeless women's shelter in the church's basement was also damaged.
Five neighboring buildings were evacuated and a local library branch was closed because of heavy smoke. The Columbia Heights Community Center suspended recreation programs so that it could serve as a temporary shelter. The local chapter of the Red Cross is working with the D.C. Emergency Management Agency to temporarily house people in hotels and help them find other accommodations.
The displaced tenants, most still in pajamas late yesterday, hugged and cried outside the building. They were a diverse mix of immigrant families, single professionals, artists and musicians.
Edilma Alvarez, 33, nine months pregnant, sat on a folding chair and said she had just set up a crib for her baby. Alvarez's due date is today. "I had everything all ready in the apartment, and now it's destroyed," said Alvarez, a native of Guatemala who has lived in the building for three years.
Maria Irma Villatoro was still wearing a gray top and blue pajama bottoms yesterday afternoon as she waited to find out if anything in her apartment was salvageable. She clutched a bag that contained her green card and a few other important papers that she grabbed before rushing out after hearing a smoke alarm.
"All I have is what I'm wearing," Villatoro said, her eyes filling with tears. "I don't even have a dollar."
Villatoro was among the tenants who years ago pressured the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to take action against Deauville Partners, the owners of the building. Aided by a nonprofit advocacy group, the residents had applied pressure for repairs. The tenants association had considered buying the building, but plans fell through and a court battle ensued.
At a news conference yesterday, DCRA Director Linda Argo said the building had "a lot of issues" for many years. "I would call it a troubled building." Argo said, however, that authorities have no reason to suspect that code violations contributed to the fire.
Records from the DCRA's tracking system show that the property has been cited for more than 7,100 housing code violations since 2004, more than any other building in the city. The complaints cited such problems as broken heating system, holes in walls and ceilings, and leaking pipes. No violations were cited since January 2007, records show.
Michael Rupert, a DCRA spokesman, said that the agency spent $60,000 to get repairs moving. He said renovations last year fixed the remaining problems. The agency closed its case in May after finding that the problems had been or were being fixed.
"This is one building that had a ton of follow-up," Rupert said.
Residents also filed lawsuits about conditions and rate increases. They have complained about rat and bug infestations, mold, water damage, plumbing failures, unstable cabinets and flooring, and lax security.
In those cases, there also were signs of a turnaround, with attorneys on both sides recently filing papers in D.C. Superior Court that said a settlement was in the works. An agreement was to be signed as early as next week, with promises to keep up repairs and stabilize rents.
A lawyer for Deauville Partners, Thomas J. Murphy, did not return telephone messages yesterday. One of the building's owners, Eric Kretschman, who lives in the Philadelphia area, also did not return calls.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said he plans to schedule a meeting tomorrow with residents to discuss their needs. He promised to work with the building's owner to ensure that the property is rehabilitated "with affordable housing for the people who lived in it previous to the fire."
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said the problems at the building were typical of those described in a Washington Post investigative series about landlords who allow their buildings to deteriorate as a way to force low-paying tenants to leave. Once vacant, the buildings are then converted to higher-priced residences.
"This is the classic example of eviction by neglect," said Graham, who has worked on various issues with tenants for years.
D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said that authorities suspect the fire started in the basement and that the investigation is continuing. Authorities were not able to do a thorough investigation yesterday because part of the building was structurally unsound.
About 200 firefighters, including 50 from other jurisdictions, battled the blaze. Five D.C. firefighters reported that they were trapped by flames or smoke, Assistant Fire Chief Lawrence Schultz said. Officials were able to direct three firefighters to safety. The other two were rescued, including one who was pulled out of a fourth-floor window. He suffered smoke inhalation and was treated at a hospital.
It took about three hours to bring the fire under control.
After the fire was extinguished, Rubin said, 75 fire department recruits went through the building to retrieve residents' belongings.
Residents made lists of what they hoped could be retrieved, including passports, computer equipment, pictures, baby bottles, wallets and clothing.
The crowd applauded when one firefighter retrieved a loudly meowing black and white cat.
Firefighters also saved equipment essential to Carlito de la Rosa's life as "D.J. Hostility." Firefighters who happened to be the local disc jockey's fans rescued boxes of vinyl records, mixing boards and computer equipment from his apartment.
"I got home around 2:35 a.m., from a club I was working at, and saw the fire," de la Rosa said. "It was intense. Crazy. I thought I was watching everything I had worked for go up in flames."
Database editor Sarah Cohen; staff writers Sylvia Moreno, Howard Schneider and Debbi Wilgoren; and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.