Armindo Benitez was fortunate, as it turned out, that he needed a boarder for help with the $1,200-a-month rent for his family’s two-bedroom unit at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring.

When the building, on Arliss Street, erupted in flames and shattered glass the night of Aug. 10, it was Isaac Puac Qual, the boarder, who pounded on the bedroom door, yelling, “Fire!”

Minutes before the third-floor balcony collapsed, Benitez was able to hand off his 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to Puac Qual, who used the iron-grate railings as a ladder.

Like dozens of families ­displaced by the inferno — a natural-gas explosion has been identified as the cause — the Benitezes are grateful to be alive. But now they are faced with the challenge of finding new housing in one of the country’s priciest real estate markets, one where they needed a boarder to make the rent.

“We had been saving for a house,” said Benitez, a construction worker. “That’s the ironic thing.”

Crews in Silver Spring, Md., continued to look for bodies on August 16 and clean up after a massive fire and explosion six days earlier at an apartment complex. At least six people are believed to have been killed. (Video: Dan Morse/The Washington Post; Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The $1,200 they paid each month is about $400 under the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Montgomery County — and $800 less than the median for one-bedroom units in the District.

Finding an affordable apartment can be a challenge for anyone. For the immigrant working poor, especially those left with only the clothes on their backs, it can be overwhelming and soul-depleting.

“The truth is, we’re still in a state of shock,” said José Portillo, a supervisor for a building maintenance company. “We have no plan.”

As the displaced begin to look for new homes, they probably will find themselves in competition with the better-off for a limited inventory of apartments. The burst housing bubble drove some traditional buyers into renting. Millennials and downsizing empty-nesters also are finding renting desirable.

“The supply has not been able to keep up with the demand,” said Peter A. Tatian, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and co-
author of a 2014 study on housing affordability in the Washington area. He estimates that 40 percent of apartments in the region that might be within reach of low-income tenants are occupied by those with more resources.

“You have a lot of higher-
income folks who are occupying some of the lower-cost units,” Tatian said.

A refrigerator full of food is pulled out of the wreckage as the search continues for a seventh missing person at the scene. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
‘We don’t feel safe’

About one-third of the Washington area’s households are rentals, and tenants up and down the economic ladder are stretched financially. The Urban Institute found that about half of the region’s renter households are “cost-burdened,” the federal government’s term for those paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

Cost is only one obstacle for low-income immigrant families. Poor credit or records of late rent payment — some triggered by a delay of just a few days — can lead to a rejected application. Illegal immigration status also leaves them ineligible for housing vouchers and other rental assistance.

When families do find something, it can be a place such as Flower Branch, a 60-year-old garden-apartment development with chronic maintenance problems, according to county records and tenant interviews.

Mice, roaches and bedbugs, mold from water damage, and broken stove fans surface repeatedly in code-violation reports. Although there is no evidence that these problems contributed to the Aug. 10 tragedy, they are an indication that conditions at Flower Branch were poor.

Montgomery County housing inspectors, who look at every apartment building triennially, have the option of sampling 10 percent or 50 percent of the units. Flower Branch had 100 percent of its 362 apartments scrutinized in 2007, 2010 and 2013, records show. The most recent inspection found more than 500 code violations.

The nearby Goodacre and Pine Ridge complex — also operated by Kay Apartment Communities, the company that owns Flower Branch — has a similar inspection history.

“We believe and know that there are a lot of properties out there with chronic problems,” said Matthew Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, an advocacy group.

Concerns about immigration status or illegal overcrowding with extended family or friends can make tenants reluctant to attract attention.

“You’ll put up with all kinds of stuff,” said Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who has sponsored legislation that provides for annual inspections of certain buildings.

Kay has offered some of those displaced from Flower Branch space at Goodacre and Pine Ridge. But many say they are not interested because of what they see as the company’s neglect.

Even those not affected by the fire and explosion want out.

“We don’t feel safe here, “ said Angelica Alvarez, who lives with a family of seven in a two-bedroom basement unit directly across from the damaged buildings. She splits the $1,500 rent with five other adults who work at restaurants or factories. The cluttered apartment’s walls are marked with dark stains where bedbugs were killed. A ruptured gas hose in their tiny kitchen was fixed after the explosion, though Alvarez had yet to try the new stove last week out of fear of another explosion.

“But where can we go?” she said. “If we had good salaries, I wouldn’t think twice about moving. We have to live like rats, you might say, because we have no other options.”

Clark Melillo, Kay president, disputed the claims, describing the county citations as “terribly small” and quickly corrected. He also said the company has it own inspection program.

“We’re very proactive in taking care of the apartments,” Melillo said.

Rising need

Montgomery County will need as many as 25,000 additional housing units over the next decade for households earning less than $50,000 a year, according to a study from George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis.

But one regional housing executive contends that reports about the shortage of affordable rentals are overblown — as are the financial straits of those looking.

“They’re not as poor as people think,” said David Hillman, chairman and chief executive of Southern Management Corp., the apartment giant that owns 25,000 units in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Although many immigrants are undocumented, he said, they often make good cash incomes under the table. Immigration issues can be avoided by having a legal friend or relative sign a lease. As for the overcrowding, Hillman said, that is a cultural preference.

“Immigrants have different needs than native-born Americans,” he said. “To them, living three to four to a room is not an inconvenience. They have other priorities, like sending the money home or sending their children to college.”

Immigrant advocates who have been helping the displaced families say Hillman’s view is part of the problem.

“This type of thinking is what perpetuates unsafe and substandard conditions in low-income housing,” said Gustavo Torres, director of the Casa de Maryland nonprofit organization. “They are forced to live this way because, financially, they have few options available to them.”

Hillman said that while the supply of affordable units is tight, turnover is also high. Eligible tenants can usually move into one of Southern’s properties within 60 days, he said.

But the stock of 1960s- and 1970s-vintage low-rise garden-style apartments, the kinds of places the Benitezes would look for, is being threatened by redevelopment and gentrification. Some of the decline is a product of county “smart growth” policies aimed at reducing sprawl by increasing residential densities near mass transit.

Glenmont and Wheaton, the Silver Spring communities along Georgia Avenue, are in the middle of this transition. Privacy World, a complex of 18 garden buildings with 352 apartments next to the Glenmont Metro station, is being razed in phases to make way for new townhouses.

“You’re seeing this replicated in other places as well,” said Robert Goldman, executive director of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, a nonprofit group working to expand affordable housing options in the county. “I think the challenge in Montgomery is that bit-by-bit, market-rate affordable housing has been identified for redevelopment.”

County officials point out that builders will be required to set aside between 12.5 percent and 15 percent of new units as moderately priced. They also said that other older garden-apartment communities in the area have been zoned to protect them from redevelopment.

Hillman said the supply of affordable rentals would increase without the county’s heavy-
handed regulatory approach. “The last building I did took three years and 17 public hearings,” he said.

He added that although lower-cost rentals can be quite profitable, heavy upfront expenses make it more financially feasible to build for the high end of the market in Montgomery.

‘We were like a family’

For many of those displaced from Flower Branch, finding appropriate housing is only the beginning.

Elise Brun, a Senegalese immigrant with two daughters and two granddaughters, was offered a two-bedroom apartment at Village Square in Rockville, a property owned by Kay, for the same monthly rent of $1,533 that she had paid at Flower Branch. It had clean carpets and attractive exposed brick in the dining area.

But there was no furniture to replace the three beds, a couch and other items destroyed in the fire, and it was 12 miles from her granddaughters’ school and Brun’s church, St. Camillus in Silver Spring, where she volunteers. She has no car.

Brun, 67, said that although conditions weren’t great at Flower Branch, the location allowed her to be close to her church and neighbors she had come to love.

“We’d say hello, or sometimes I would say hola,” she said, smiling at the memory. “We were like a family.”

Since the explosion, her family has scattered. Brun is staying with a friend, while her daughters and grandchildren are with various friends. One of the daughters, who is pregnant, is sleeping on a couch.

Kay officials offered Brun’s family another apartment in the Northwest Park complex it manages, which she is considering taking. This one — for the same rent and appearing to be well maintained — will come with beds for all five tenants and some kitchen utensils, Brun said.

“It’s okay for the moment, and then we will try to find something else,” she said.

As for Puac Qual, he said it is not clear what comes next. He lost $2,000 in cash that fell out of his pants and into the flames as he worked to bring Benitez and family to safety.

“It’s just money,” he said. “We’ll see what the future brings.”