"No heat in house, no running water," wrote an inspector after visiting the apartment building at 110 Bowdoin Street, in the Olneyville section of Providence. "Issuing intent to condemn, house was a mess."
The report, signed January 3, 2018, went on to describe occupants relying on space heaters and propane torches for warmth, during one of the coldest periods in recent memory. There was an open electrical panel in the basement, the inspector noted. Residents were complaining of constant problems and frozen pipes.
Noting that the city inspection office was closed on Thursday, the day of a major snowstorm, the inspector said he was out on Friday and would write the report on Monday. That turned out to be too late.
On Saturday, the building went up in flames. Red Cross officials, who are helping the displaced residents find housing, reported that 23 people sought assistance after the fire in the two-family building, among them six children.
Altogether, a dozen different families have been displaced by the fire, according to Red Cross spokeswoman, Stefanie Arcangelo.
“We provided services to meet those families’ immediate needs, services typically include resources for lodging, clothing, food,” said Arcangelo.
One woman's body was found in the charred remains of the house. The cause of her death is under investigation, but it seems likely that the woman perished in the fire. Investigators are still working to determine what caused the blaze.
In his report, the Providence inspector who toured the building wrote that the owner, Dexter Jackson, was “operating a boardinghouse.” A spokesman from the Providence Mayor's Office confirmed that Jackson lived in the building and was present when the inspector visited.
But that January 3rd visit was not the first time city officials came to the building, nor was it the first time they noted serious problems there.
On January 1st, a firefighter, John Zuffoletti, visited the house, at the request of an engine company. In an email, Zuffoletti recounts complaints from residents about electrical problems, including a tenant on oxygen whose husband stated "that he must reset tripped circuit breakers 10 times a day."
Zuffoletti reported that the same tenant's husband told him the house had no heat or running water and that residents were using space heaters. The firefighter noted that the landlord, Jackson, lived on the second floor.
"He was advised of the seriousness of the situation, and he stated that this electrician was scheduled to work on the problem the next day (2 Jan 2018)."
Jackson's explanation for the problem was that "the tenants are drug addicts who don't pay their rent, causing him to be unable to pay for the necessary work," Zuffoletti wrote.
The email was sent to Paul Doughty, the head of the Providence firefighters' union, and one other person, Peter Sword, and provided to RIPR by the mayor's office.
A property report from the Providence Department of Inspection and Standards shows a long list of previous violations on the property, some dating as far back as 2006. The owner was cited multiple times for failure to maintain the exterior structure and failure to maintain gas and electricity connections. The building also suffered repeated rodent infestations.
Most of the violations were listed as "abated" but three, dating from 2016, were still pending in court. They included garbage strewn about the property.
On December 20th of last year, less than a month before the fire, a resident complained to the city, using its 3-1-1 service. Mayor Jorge Elorza's office said the city attempted to respond by emailing the complainant to set up an inspection, but the resident never replied to the city's email.
A second complaint to 3-1-1 on January 2nd provided a phone number, which allowed the city to schedule the January 3rd inspection, the mayor's spokesman said.
In addition to noting the dangerous conditions inside the building, the inspection report also included claims that tenants had called the Red Cross seeking help. Red Cross Spokeswoman Stefanie Arcangelo could not confirm any calls to the Red Cross without a specific date.
“If somebody calls the Red Cross to report unsafe living conditions, we would then refer those folks to the appropriate agency, within the city or their municipality to report those complaints,” said Arcangelo. “The Red Cross is not a reporting agency.”
Correction: The city inspection of the building occurred on January 3rd, not January 2nd. The city received the complaint about the property on January 2nd.