Fire Leaves Residents With Nowhere To Go

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Matt Geiger
Karina De Lira with her sons, Peter Campos Ayala and David Campos Ayala.

Karina De Lira awoke with a cough and smelled  smoke.  In the pre-dawn gloom, she saw her young daughter standing in the doorway of their second floor apartment on Allen Boulevard.

“She was scared,” said De Lira, using her sister-in-law, Evelyn Cerez, as an interpreter.  

“There were people screaming and yelling for help,” she added.

De Lira, who had arrived home from work shortly after 1 a.m. and gone to sleep, grabbed her three children and headed for the door.

“When [I] opened the door, the smoke came, the fire came right at [me],” she recalled.

They slammed the door and headed to the balcony. Faced with a crushing decision, De Lira picked up one of her sons and readied to drop him from the second-story to the relative safety of the ground below. It was, she thought, the only way to escape.

De Lira said her son, in the fog of sleep, begged her not to.

That’s when the Middleton Fire Department arrived, rescuing De Lira and her children with the assistance of a ladder.

But that was only the beginning of the difficulties faced by four local families that were displaced by the blaze, which broke out shortly after 5 a.m. at Forest Harbor Apartments on September 6.

One adult tenant broke her ankle jumping from the balcony. An infant was treated for smoke inhalation.

And when the smoke had cleared, they were left without clear answers about where to go for the nearly two-month period while their fire-ravaged apartments were restored.

What followed was a string of misunderstandings, at best, or flip-flopping, at worst, from by the property’s managing company, the Madison Development Corporation. As a non-profit entity based out of Madison, the Madison Development Corporation has assets totaling more than $12 million and claims to provide employment, small business loans and affordable housing for those who need it.

Frank Staniszewski, the corporation’s president, said they have been working to fix the families’ old units. He said they were also able to find some temporary quarters for some of the families. But those quarters were rented out to other families who were slated to move in at the beginning of October, long before the old apartments were liveable.

Staniszewski said all the families will be welcomed back when their old apartments are cleared by the city’s building inspector, but he told some of them they needed to find shelter for at least the month of October.

The families themselves, as well as social workers and educators in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area schools where their children go, paint a markedly different picture. They say the families were told their leases were being cancelled, and that they needed to find permanent housing elsewhere. It’s an allegation Staniszewski denies.

Even if they will eventually be able to return, it’s clear that a lack of solid communication with the families, most of which speak English as a second language, has caused problems. Verbal instructions to leave their temporary apartments, Post-It notes with vexing commands to quickly get all their belongings into storage, and no response to phone calls have all taken place, according to the families.

“Basically, they are trying to evict [us] unjustly,” said De Lira. “They were never clear with [us] what was expected.”

“Today,” she said on Thursday, Sept. 24. “We had to leave.”

Speaking from her sister-in-law’s home, De Lira was clearly upset by the situation.

“They didn’t care if [we] had nowhere to go,” she said. “They just said we had to leave anyway.”

Michelle Bolstad, a bilingual educator as Sauk Trail Elementary School, where several of the displaced children go, said all four families seemed to suddenly get the same unexpected message: leave.

“We all thought and were under the impression that they had until their apartments were fixed,” Bolstad said. When they found out that wasn’t the case in mid September, she said they were understandably “distraught.”

Staniszewski said significant language barriers are responsible for the situation.

City administrator Mike Davis said building inspector Scott Ellarson is working with the apartment complex’s management to try to expedite the tenants’ moving back into their units. Davis also sent a message to Staniszewski offering to connect him with a Spanish-language interpreter.

In an email to Ellarson, Staniszewski said much of the information circulating about the residents’ plight, including a news story featured on a Madison television station, is untrue.

“First, I should let you and the city team know that the information being broadcast or otherwise provided to you is largely not true,” Staniszewski wrote on Wednesday, Sept. 23. “The tenant we have seen on Channel 3000 has never been told that he needs to vacate.  He has been re-located by us into a vacant unit at … Allen Blvd. and that unit remains available to him. We personally told his wife that today, in a visit to the building.”

“It is possible that he or other tenants misunderstood earlier instructions to remove belongings from some damaged units, so that Paul Davis can clean, re-carpet or otherwise rehab them,” Staniszewski continued.

Despite attempts by local schools, officials at City Hall, and local volunteers, a lack of clarity on the situation persists to this day.

But one thing is clear – not all of the displaced residents have somewhere to stay from now until the date when they can move back into their old apartments.

Lisa Helmuth, a Middleton resident who established a fundraiser for the families at Rally.org, said another thing is painfully evident: There was a gap between services the night of the fire, and the long term safety net the residents clearly needed.

To visit the fundraising page, go to https://rally.org/respite.

 

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