Displaced by Fire, Tenants Brace For Trying Ordeal

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

In a third-floor room of a Southwest D.C. hotel yesterday, Jose Turcios recounted with remarkable calm what has happened to him and his family in three short days.

Their home of 15 years went up in flames; he was hospitalized overnight with heart and blood pressure problems precipitated by stress; he and his wife lost their hard-earned U.S. passport and green card in the blaze; and their 2-year-old son, snatched from the midnight fire wearing nothing but a T-shirt and diaper, is now suffering from stomach problems because of the chaos. But giving up, they are not.

"As they say in my country, we are now in an uphill struggle," said Turcios, a native of El Salvador who was one of about 200 people left homeless Thursday in a five-alarm fire that destroyed their apartment building in Mount Pleasant.

"But now we have a double fight: first we fought against the landlord because of the bad conditions of the building," said Turcios, vice president of the Deauville apartments tenants association. "Now we're going to fight to get back in our building."

But how long that will take and what will happen to the tenants while the building is being repaired was in question as District officials worked overtime to provide emergency assistance, including hotel rooms for several days, food stamps, meals, donations of clothes and other necessities and even mental health counseling.

Officials have started the process of looking for temporary housing for the 80 to 90 households that occupied the Deauville.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), along with D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and an array of city department heads, met yesterday with the displaced tenants, some of whom carried their babies in blankets still reeking of smoke. Officials assured tenants that they would be offered temporary affordable apartments.

"We will make sure every tenant will be living in an apartment, and that apartment will be afforded to them at the same price that they were paying," Fenty said at a news conference after the meeting at the Columbia Heights Community Center. "We will be working out the logistics of what type of government subsidy, if any, will be needed to make that happen."

Average rents ranged from $460 for a studio apartment to $1,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments in the Deauville, where the majority of apartments were under rent control.

Turcios, his wife, Mirza Canales, and their 2-year-old, Erickson, shared a fourth-floor studio apartment with Turcios's brother, Nelson, and paid $461 a month. Not only was the rent affordable for Turcios, who has worked as a cook at the same Thai restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue for the past 17 years, but the Mount Pleasant neighborhood was home.

"I felt like I was in El Salvador," Turcios said of the largely Latino neighborhood, with its string of Hispanic food markets, Salvadoran restaurants and Spanish-language video stores.

"We felt good living there and we had everything there: public transportation, stores, schools. We felt safer there than in any other places," he said.

City officials have said they want to relocate tenants to somewhere within or near Mount Pleasant, which is in Ward 1 and bordered by the densely populated, high-rent neighborhoods of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. Landlords have offered about 70 units to city officials for possible use as temporary apartments, but Graham said he thought that perhaps only 20 percent of them are in the Mount Pleasant vicinity. The rest are spread across the city, miles from the schools, day-care centers and churches that tenants, few of whom have cars, would use.

"This is a great human tragedy, and we should respond by keeping them as close as possible to their neighborhood," Graham said. "We could have more housing offers in Ward 1 or nearby, although I'm not being critical of any of the generosity that has been offered."

Although the building had a long history of housing code violations, authorities have said there is no evidence that those problems led to the fire. The property, owned by Deauville Partners, was cited for more than 7,100 violations from 2004 through January 2007, records show, but District officials said repairs by the city and the landlord corrected the problems.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said that at 8 a.m. yesterday, investigators had finally been able to get inside the fire-ravaged building to begin sifting through the debris to determine the cause of the fire. The face of the building, structurally damaged in the fire, had to be shored up for investigators to enter safely, he said. The fire, the first five-alarm blaze in the District in almost 30 years, is believed to have started in the basement, said fire department spokesman Alan Etter.

"The investigation has begun in earnest," Rubin said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company