Originally printed in the Everett Herald, January 27, 2016
By Rikki King
Everett Herald Writer
Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2016, 12:10 p.m.
EVERETT — The Bluffs apartments, the site of the fatal fire on New Year’s Eve, had no fire alarms, a violation of city codes.
The city of Everett has ordered the property owner to install fire alarms on every building where people are now living.
The alarms that need to be installed are the type that activate when someone pulls a lever. They operate independently from smoke detectors, which were inside apartments.
As many as 26 other apartment complexes in Everett may not be up to code with fire alarms, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said Wednesday. The fire marshal’s office started making a list after the Bluffs fire. Inspectors plan to visit each of those buildings in the coming months.
“It’s a priority,” she said. “We’ll be communicating that code and making sure property owners are aware of it.”
The Bluffs are owned by a limited liability company with addresses in California and Hawaii. The company has 90 days to apply for a work permit. After getting a permit, it has six months to install the fire alarms, according to a letter the city mailed on Friday.
The Bluffs were built in 1969, before fire sprinklers were required. Unlike the sprinkler codes, however, the fire alarm rules are retroactive. Under city codes, any apartment building with at least three stories or more than 16 units must have a fire alarm system.
The apartment complex, at 2 W. Casino Road, is federally designated low-income housing. The owner is responsible for making sure the buildings are up to code. At the same time, a local real estate firm contracts with the owner to manage day-to-day operations.
In the weeks since the blaze, there have been some uncomfortable but productive conversations between people who live at the Bluffs, a nonprofit that stepped in to help them after the fire, and the property manager, Everett-based Coast Real Estate Services.
Coast CEO Tom Hoban, who grew up in south Everett, plans to apologize in person to families for how they were treated by employees the night of the fire and afterward, he said. Two Coast employees were put on administrative leave, including the former community manager, during an internal investigation.
“They did not perform well under pressure,” he said.
The company also canceled a legal agreement the former manager distributed to residents after the fire and told them to sign. That document used Coast letterhead and was created without Coast’s knowledge, Hoban said.
The MeCHA club at Everett Community College, a Chicano/Latino student group, is helping him coordinate the public apology. Many of the families who call the Bluffs home include native Spanish speakers.
The initial agreement asked residents to waive their right to pursue litigation in exchange for the return of their security deposits.
The letter was released “without management approval,” Hoban said. “We regret the confusion it caused.”
A second legal agreement regarding the deposits was drawn up with input from Snohomish County Legal Services, a nonprofit legal group. Hand In Hand, a nonprofit based on E. Casino Road, helped mediate the conversation between the displaced families and the property owners’ lawyers.
The holdup on the deposits caused unnecessary delays for people who needed the money to take care of their families, said Todd McNeal, the executive director of Hand In Hand.
“This shed light on the issues that many under-represented communities face, and we’re hoping this can be the watershed moment to start correcting some of these injustices,” McNeal said.
Coast is expecting to refund 30 security deposits, Hoban said. So far, seven residents have signed paperwork confirming they received their deposit. Some wanted the transaction documented, Hoban said.
“The new letter agreement makes clear the residents are not waiving their legal rights,” Hoban said. “That was never our intent.”
The New Year’s Eve fire at the Bluffs was the worst blaze in Everett in years. A man died, more than a dozen people were injured, and about 130 people were displaced. Some had to leap from apartments on the second and third floors to escape.
The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter that stayed open for 22 nights.
The Red Cross has been working with 32 families, said Jamie Gravelle, a disaster manager. All of those people have found temporary housing, and all but two have found permanent housing, she said.
At one point, 47 people stayed the night in temporary shelter, local Red Cross director Chuck Morrison said. Even as folks found places to stay, they returned for meals, mental health support and help getting medications replaced.
“There truly isn’t any easy way or avenue for every family to get back on their feet,” Morrison said. “Each of them has to navigate pretty different paths. It can be confusing and certainly can be difficult, and we’re just trying to work with them and the other agencies.”
Hand In Hand is a nondenominational Christian nonprofit with a mission of serving families and children in need. Some of the families affected by the fire had participated in its programs before or attended other services offered in the building, said Angela Edwards, a Hand In Hand social worker.
“When the fire occurred, it was just natural to step in,” she said.
Edwards has met with 23 of the displaced families, connecting them with private sponsors including companies and churches. The aim is to make sure everyone gets what they need, she said.
Hand In Hand has collected $26,600 that will be used for deposits and rents, she said. Their goal is to provide assistance through February, based on need. “Every single penny will be spent on a family,” she said. “A lot of them lost work and they live paycheck-to-paycheck. A lot of the families are just one paycheck away from homelessness.”
The help has come in many ways, Edwards said. For example, a man who provides pest management for the Bluffs donated all of the gift cards from his Christmas stocking.
“We couldn’t do what we’re doing without those in the community who care and who reached out to us,” Edwards said. “All of this is made possible by the community’s generosity.”
Meanwhile, Coast has joined in some of the community fundraisers, Hoban said. Coast also bought vouchers for displaced kids to get free Boys & Girls Club memberships. Hand In Hand is distributing those.
“The fact is that we have never wavered from our commitment to do what we can to see every family find a new home and a new beginning,” Hoban said.
Hoban recently met with McNeal, the Hand In Hand director, to talk about how Coast can help with long-term healing. Hand In Hand encouraged the company to hire more staff who speak Spanish, McNeal said. Coast is now recruiting a new community manager for the Bluffs, and applicants must be bilingual.
“There have been some really positive things that have come out of this,” McNeal said, and Hoban agrees.