Stacks of boxes are shoved into the corner of the Silver Spring hotel room. Food is strewn across the desk, and diapers for baby Sofia are in the closet. One recent afternoon, a 12-year-old snuggled in a Red Cross blanket was trying to watch TV while his little brother played with a toy firetruck.
This is the Andrade family’s home for now.
They are among 35 families still living in hotel rooms paid for by the District’s Office of the Tenant Advocate after a three-alarm fire destroyed their Northwest apartment complex June 24. Those with an alternative place to live, though, will leave in coming days. Others can stay until Aug. 21 but aren’t sure what will happen next.
“The most difficult is not knowing where we’ll live,” Flor Andrade, 31, said in Spanish. “I need a place so everything can be okay.”
Normally, the District provides housing for two weeks to residents displaced by any disaster that would render them homeless. But Johanna Shreve, the chief tenant advocate, said in this case the city offered hotel stays of nearly two months because tenants of the Rolling Terrace apartments were mostly low-income and the damage was severe.
Even with the extra time, families are struggling to find affordable housing in the District. The language barrier faced by many former tenants adds an extra hurdle.
At a meeting this month, officials told the displaced tenants not to worry, but Andrade said she can’t help it. The kids keep asking, “Where are we going to go next?” She tells them she’s looking for a place near their school or a bus stop. But most apartments are too expensive. Her husband works in construction, and on a good week he makes $400.
While most families are expected to be leaving the hotels Monday, the Department of Human Services estimates that seven families will still need a home by Aug. 21, said Dora Taylor-Lowe, an agency spokeswoman. Officials plan on assisting them with additional government programs.
“These families have already experienced the trauma of a fire,” Taylor-Lowe said. “DHS would employ every effort to make sure that trauma is not exacerbated by a shelter stay.”
Seven weeks ago, Andrade opened her apartment door to a hallway full of smoke so putrid it hurt her throat. To get her family out, she passed her baby and three older children out of their second-floor apartment to firefighters on ladders.
One man was killed in the blaze at the 55-unit brick complex in the Brightwood area. Some tenants crawled on their hands and knees to escape, feeling the walls for a sense of direction. Others jumped through windows. Most left with only the clothes on their backs.
“In the night I’m thinking about the fire still,” Angel Marquez, 39, said in Spanish. He lived there with his wife and 12-year-old son.
After the fire, the immediate response was far-reaching. The Red Cross and several city departments helped people find a place to sleep, get needed medication, replace identification such as passports and Social Security cards and receive counseling services. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
In all, the Department of Human Services counted 58 families who lost their homes. Ten of them went to stay with family or found new places on their own. The Andrades and 47 others needed help from the city.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” Andrade said about the fire. “Everything’s ugly after that.”
Compared with most places in the area, the Peabody Street apartments were cheap.
Rolling Terrace was a rent-controlled building, so costs ranged from about $700 a month for longtime residents to $1,800 for newcomers, estimated Arianna Royster, the executive vice president of Borger Management, which managed the property. Andrade said her rent there was $1,122 a month, not including utilities.
But rents in the city have risen with the arrival of wealthy young professionals, while longtime residents have been priced out of their homes. A 2015 study found that median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the District was $2,000.
After the fire, displaced families hopped on buses in the parking lot of the Nativity Catholic Church, a short walk away. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Blake Evans, said he has watched the area change as gentrification creeps closer. A new Walmart, a sign for a gourmet store, all hints that the area he calls “ the American tapestry” is changing.
“You go into the McDonald’s, the Walmart, you hear languages from all over the world,” Evans said. “The gentrification happened faster in Petworth than it did here. . . . Things have changed, but pretty much the neighborhood has stayed the same.”
Although Shreve acknowledged that “the cost of renting has gone through the roof,” her office has done what it can to stretch funding to help the families. The fire was among the larger disasters that the Office of the Tenant Advocate has dealt with.
The families will eventually have the option of moving back to the Peabody property at the rent they had before, Royster said. But reconstruction will take about 18 months.
At the Aug. 3 meeting set up to help the displaced tenants, Melanie Galloway, 38, asked if there was anything the city or property manager could do to match their previous rent at new apartments. They “had it good at Peabody Street,” she said.
“Let’s not be concerned about it, please, please, find a unit, please,” answered Lastenia Pretlow, the program manager for Strong Families, a program in the Department of Human Services.
Galloway’s 4-year-old son sat at a table, eating potato chips from a napkin. While a health worker with a nonprofit organization spoke to the group about trauma and mental-health resources, her son asked, “Mommy, are we going to another house?”
Galloway said they have looked at about 15 apartments since the fire, but they are either too expensive, too far from her twins’ school or in poor condition.
Marquez said he, too, has not been able to find a new apartment for his family. He and his wife, Marta Benavidez, work cleaning buildings and make a combined $42,000 a year. If they don’t find a place, he said, a relative will let them temporarily bunk in their living room.
A list of almost 50 apartments provided to the families at the meeting included those with rent as low as $728 and as high as $1,855. The locations ranged from less than a mile from the damaged Northwest Washington apartment to District Heights.
When Andrade checks out apartments, she has trouble understanding how much each costs, what paperwork she needs or when they would be available. Like a majority of the displaced residents, English is her second language.
Most of the adults, Shreve said, are Latino and work two to three jobs. The city has assigned nine case managers to help the families navigate the rental market. Two speak Amharic and five speak Spanish.
At the meeting, Pretlow told the residents to try not to worry about the looming hotel deadline. As Pretlow described mental-health resources, encouraging the group not to let the trauma paralyze them and instead focus on finding an apartment, Sharon Waddy-Gardner, 60, became visibly upset.
She had lived in that apartment for 38 years. She watched her daughter Keyona and now granddaughter Phoenix grow up there. Now she felt priced out of the city she calls home.
“It’s awfully hard,” Gardner said. “I lost everything. Everything is gone. I have nothing. Nothing, I mean, you can talk to the mental-health people, but that’s a trauma that’s very devastating. I have to apply for apartments that I haven’t done since ’78.”
Pretlow cut through the tension by reassuring Gardner that she heard her concerns.
“I want you to hear that we’re here for you and we’re going to walk you through this experience,” Pretlow said.
Less than a week later, Gardner’s family found a Northeast apartment with a Sept. 1 move-in date. On Thursday afternoon, Andrade was awaiting word on how long her family can stay in the hotel as she continues her search for a permanent home.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It’s not my fault that this happened.”