Santa Rosa apartment fire unleashes rash of problems, leaving dozens without homes

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Aid for displaced renters

Nueva Vista tenants who need help are urged to call Catholic Charities at 707-528-8712.

Angela Schardt and her 8-year-old son have slept on a half-inflated air mattress in her mother’s living room in Rohnert Park for the past week. The cramped quarters have been their latest makeshift home since the evening of April 4, when a fire tore through their apartment building at the Nueva Vista complex off West Steele Lane in northwest Santa Rosa.

The fire displaced Schardt and about 75 other residents who lived in part of the complex near Coddingtown Mall.

Those who found themselves without a place to go the night of the fire were taken first to an emergency shelter managed by Red Cross, and later to the Flamingo Hotel. They stayed there until April 15, when Nikki Rutland, the manager of Nueva Vista, informed the displaced renters that the complex owner would no longer be paying for replacement housing.

They have been scrambling to find new temporary housing ever since, all the while unsure if their old homes will again be inhabitable.

“I live paycheck to paycheck and I was planning to grow old in my apartment,” said Carrie Johnson, 56, a Nueva Vista resident of almost 10 years. “I am too old for all this moving business and now I am having to look for a place to live and it’s going to be expensive.”

Johnson and other displaced Nueva Vista renters spoke out this week about being cut off by their landlord just as the city attorney’s office opened its own inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the fire, which caused an estimated $500,000 in damage to the three-story, 32-unit building on the north half of the complex. A second 32-unit building on the south side of the property was not affected, and its tenants remain in their units. Overall, the complex is home to about 160 people, a lower figure than was initially reported by fire officials and representatives of the site.

Fire investigators determined the blaze originated from an old entertainment system in a unit on the second floor of the north building. Inspectors have since red-tagged the building, meaning it cannot be reoccupied at this time.

City officials and Rutland, the site manager, said that no projected completion date exists for repairs that would allow tenants to return. Abatement work mandated by city code inspectors is set to begin later this month.

However, a separate inquiry into the fire launched by the city attorney’s office this week could play a significant factor for the displaced tenants and their temporary housing. As long as the city is investigating possible contributing factors to the fire at the 54-year-old complex — one that firefighters said was a concern of theirs before the blaze — the owner is obligated to cover the cost of replacement housing, according to Adriane Mertens, a city spokeswoman.

The city didn’t make that clear to Nueva Vista representatives until Wednesday evening, the same day the separate investigation was opened, and two days after tenants were cut off from assistance.

It came as a surprise to city officials when the owner of the complex suddenly stopped paying replacement housing costs, Mertens said.

“I think definitely this is a unique circumstance and it is not something we had a playbook for,” she said. “We received notification through word-of-mouth what happened and rallied as quickly as possible to make sure there was an alternative housing solution.”

Aid for displaced renters

Nueva Vista tenants who need help are urged to call Catholic Charities at 707-528-8712.

As of Friday, Mertens said there have been no updates from Nueva Vista on whether it is going to pay for cover housing costs for displaced tenants.

Most renters who live at Nueva Vista do so because of affordable rates catering to lower-income residents, Johnson said.

The complex has been owned for nearly two decades by Dennis Lanterman of Hillsborough and Tom Levison of Marin, according to property records. Attempts to reach them for comment this week were unsuccessful.

The crisis for Nueva Vista’s displaced renters comes as rock-bottom vacancy rates and high rent have squeezed working-class and lower-income residents out of many corners of the North Bay. In Santa Rosa, the crisis was exacerbated by the 2017 fires, which destroyed more than 3,000 homes, unleashing a fierce competition among survivors for replacement housing and exhausting much of the affordable rental stock.

On April 5, a day after flames ripped through Nueva Vista, affected renters were told by the city they would not be allowed to reoccupy their units pending inspection and repairs. The city worked with Red Cross to place people in emergency shelter.

Afterwards, those who were without a more-permanent place to stay were taken to the Flamingo Hotel for 10 days, with stays paid for by Lanterman, tenants said. The renters were told to wait for a more permanent relocation placement, they said.

But that never came.

“Right now we are homeless,” said Schardt, who lived at Nueva Vista for over two years.

Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, a nonprofit that has spearheaded efforts to combat homelessness, has been enlisted by the city to help the affected tenants, according to Jennielynn Holmes, the group’s director of shelter and housing. She said her team has been reaching out to each tenant to offer help finding temporary housing. They are also helping to pair them with a social worker if necessary, she said.

“We are using our existing funds we have with the city that can help with interim options as well as longer- term rehousing placements,” Holmes said. “We are providing whatever they need to help them through the process.”

Still, the uncertainty about their damaged homes and belongings is weighing on Nueva Vista renters. Some said they were also told that their building, and possibly their belongings, have been exposed to asbestos, which was more commonly used in residential buildings of that era.

Rutland, the manager, confirmed that tenants had been warned about possible asbestos contamination.

“We have to throw so much stuff away, all of the clothes, bedding and furniture,” said Schardt, who did not have renters insurance. “How are we going to pay for everything again?”

Rutland said that although she is on her phone updating tenants daily, miscommunication has been inevitable.

“I am just the onsite manager and I should only be there to collect rent and field complaints,” said Rutland, who manages the complex with her husband, Neil. “This is way beyond my scope and I only get the information that the owners tell me.”

In the absence of any clear commitment of help from the Nueva Vista owners, the city is doing its part to aid the displaced residents, said Assistant City Attorney Adam Abel.

“The city has no liability in this case but it is the city’s discretion to help in any way,” Abel said. “At this point all we are trying to do is make sure displaced tenants are taken care of.”

The two-building apartment complex built in 1965 was a known concern among firefighters because of its lack of a sprinkler system, according to Ken Sebastian, battalion chief with the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

“If that building was built today it would be built to totally different standards,” Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said. “But if there is not structural updates being done or anything that would trigger code updates, then we can’t arbitrarily come in and make someone do it.”

Although the aggressive response on April 4 contained the flames within 40 minutes, limiting most damage to the unit where the fire originated, fire officials said much of the second floor of the north building was heavily impacted by smoke.

In an inspection by city code inspectors the next day, officials concluded the building presented excessive health and safety risks for occupants. The inspection report listed at least 16 concerns, including the presence of mold, infestation by rodents and structural issues, such as deteriorated flooring.

Tenants who wanted to retrieve belongings from their units were told to reenter at their own risk.

Tenants are not being escorted in or out of the building, Rutland said.

“We recommend everyone go in there with a full body suit and a hood,” Rutland said. “We were unfortunately going in and out of the building a ton before we even knew there was asbestos and now we are concerned for the health of our daughter.”

Deborah McCarter said she purchased a top-quality mask before entering her unit to sift through clothes and mementos.

“I had to go to Home Depot to buy a mask because everyone was screaming at me to not enter the building without one because I could get sick,” said McCarter, who is living with her son while searching for a new place to live.

Those that could not afford the continued hotel stays, like McCarter, said they have moved in with family members or friends. One tenant said she was faced with the painful decision of being homeless or moving back in with an abusive ex-partner. Another said she and her two children were staying at a family member’s home and sleeping in their garage.

Evan Livingstone, housing outreach attorney, said Legal Aid of Sonoma County, said his organization is offering tenants an opportunity to learn about their rights during a free information meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday at their offices in Santa Rosa.

The city also is working to better prepare for similar situations, Mertens said.

“We are certainly evaluating our procedures so we can learn from this and be ready to respond to this immediately,” she said.

Mostly, tenants who’ve spoken out this week said they long for stability. They include Renee Priolo, who has been living in a room at the Extended Stay motel off Fountaingrove Parkway with her cat.

“I just want to be home,” said Priolo, a Nueva Vista resident since 2007. “It is really hard to find anywhere to move and I am just so depressed about this whole thing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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