Fire victims locked out as their apartments are looted
Residents of a badly damaged apartment building are not allowed to return for belongings, despite evidence that their property has been stolen
By Susan Kelleher
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Nearly every day, Kristen Bass travels to the Park Meridian apartments in Northgate, seeking reassurance that important pieces of her life are still intact.
The 30-unit apartment building where she lived for 18 months was badly damaged in an Aug. 5 fire, leaving Bass and about 70 other tenants searching for new homes while the insurance company documents the extent of the damage, and the landlord makes plans for the building’s demolition.
Bass is certain that irreplaceable belongings survived the fire — her family photos, childhood mementos, and a box of her late sister’s belongings that she can’t talk about without breaking into tears.
But she can’t retrieve them from the fenced and partially boarded-up building because the landlord says it’s not safe to let her back inside.
“We are so grateful no one got hurt,’’ building owner A. Mark Vanderveen said in an interview Monday. “The last thing I want to do is put someone in jeopardy going down half-burnt stairs.”
Vanderveen described what he said were exposed nails and holes in the floor that posed an extreme danger, and later said he heard asbestos was in the burned building.
But tenants say plenty of people have been inside it over the past week: workers hired to help with cleanup, and thieves stealing the things the tenants so desperately want to get back.
Kennedy Brayton said she and her boyfriend discovered their jewelry boxes and a laptop were stolen from their first-floor apartment. But a lot of usable items remain, she said.
“Having to spend money to buy clothes when my closet is full of them is ridiculous,’’ she said Monday night, as she sat on the curb waiting, for the second day in a row, for a police officer to take a burglary report. Like nearly all of the tenants, she didn’t have renter’s insurance.
Harjeet Kaur, who lived on the second floor, said her husband discovered their apartment appeared untouched when he was permitted to enter to retrieve essentials a day after the fire. The couple and their two children, who escaped with only their passports and a laptop, have not been able to get back inside since then. They also do not have insurance.
Another tenant said he’s been back to his apartment four times since the building was fenced and boarded up to search for anything salvageable. He acknowledged he was trespassing but said he couldn’t afford to walk away from everything he owned. He, too, has no insurance.
The flames at the complex’s Building A moved swiftly. Tenants say they heard no fire alarm, and most had only minutes to escape from the blaze, which was reported at about 2:20 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon. No people died in the fire, but tenants said two cats and a ferret perished.
Vanderveen said only three of the 30 units were covered by renter’s insurance, so most of the people who lived there will experience total losses. He said he moved quickly to return to tenants all of the August rent, along with security deposits.
Beyond that, he said, “my hands are tied.”
Whether that’s the case is open to debate.
Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley said the structure was under the department’s control from the time the fire was reported until 7 p.m. Aug. 6, a little more than 24 hours after it was extinguished.
“Firefighters assisted tenants with obtaining belongings from their residence the day of the fire, and the following day, before the building was turned back over to the owner/property manager,’’ Tinsley said in an email. “Tenants were either escorted by a firefighter to their unit to grab necessities, or gave specific instructions to firefighters on where to find their belongings.”
Once the building was turned over to the landlord, the department could no longer assist people, she said.
Vanderveen disputed the Fire Department’s timeline, saying he took possession of the building on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 7, two days after the blaze. In an email to tenants the previous night, Vanderveen’s property manager wrote that two security guards would watch the building until it was fenced the following day.
For about four days last week, said tenant Natalie Hammers, workers and cleaning crews were in and out of the buildings, most wearing no protective gear or only a face mask. Tenants in the neighboring buildings also reported seeing people climbing into the building.
Hammers, who does have renters insurance, said her insurance company won’t process a claim for her losses without photos of the damage, which she can’t take unless she gets inside.
When she requested entry, she said the property manager told her no residents will be allowed in the building, ever.
Wendy Shark, spokeswoman for Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspection, said the building has been tagged for limited entry. That means that “tenants are allowed to go in escorted to ensure they’re entering areas that are safe. … It’s the responsibility of the owner to decide how tenants get into and out of the building.”
Shark said the department checked the building midday on Tuesday and found that it met the legal definition of secure in that windows were closed and doors were boarded on the first floor, even if those on the second floor weren’t.
Vanderveen said he expects it will take at least six months before he arrives at a settlement with his insurance company. Only then would he apply for a city demolition permit.
He said the big stumbling block appears to be asbestos, but he said he couldn’t recall who told him that was a problem in the building, which was constructed in 1977, the same year the state banned the substance in construction materials. He said it’s possible that contractors used old materials during construction.
Vanderveen, an attorney in Washington before he was disbarred in 2009, said he couldn’t imagine there would be a waiver strong enough to protect him from liability if a tenant was injured retrieving personal items.
He says he has owned other rental properties, and that this is his first fire and he’s done everything legally required of him even as he’s still learning how to proceed.
But attorney Evan Loeffler, who specializes in landlord-tenant relations and real- estate law at Loeffler Law Group in Seattle, said Vanderveen can find a way to protect himself if he wants to, and should allow his tenants access to their property.
“He has essentially evicted everyone,’’ Loeffler said. “A landlord cannot unilaterally terminate a lease after a fire. He has improperly excluded them from entering their own place. He owns the property, but he has rented it to them. He can give back the money, but he still has responsibilities. You can’t just say, “Here’s your rent; goodbye.’?”
Loeffler said he was particularly upset that the city hasn’t done anything to help. Tenants praised the fire department and the Red Cross, which provided assistance immediately after the blaze. But they said they haven’t been able to get answers or assistance from the construction department, which assigned the case to an employee who is on vacation until Aug. 21, according to tenants.
Bass, the tenant who visits nearly every day, says she will continue her vigil. She drew a detailed plan of her apartment layout and its contents, hoping that someone will be able to walk into her unit, head for the closet she has marked on the drawing, and return her childhood mementos and her late sister’s belongings.
After all the tenants have been through, she said, it seems a small thing to ask.
Copyright 2017 The Seattle Times