Housing officials tour area near deadly fire

Immigrants warned about crowding, offered smoke devices, safety tips

February 25, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Paul T. Graziano shook his head at the scene yesterday. Five men in a two-bedroom apartment on Broadway, sleeping bags strewn on the floor, several candles and no smoke alarm.

"I'm surprised at the absence of operable smoke detectors. It's troubling," said Graziano, the commissioner and executive director of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.

Yesterday, he and other city officials toured the neighborhood around the 1600 block of E. Baltimore St. - where a rowhouse fire killed two immigrants last week who were living in a rowhouse with nine others - to give out smoke alarms and evaluate housing conditions in the area.

Some area residents have complained that too many people are crowding into homes and creating a safety hazard.

During yesterday's hourlong tour, city officials visited with several dozen immigrants and distributed nearly 50 smoke alarms.

The officials began their work around 1 p.m., and many residents were not at home or wouldn't open the door until they talked with the group's two Spanish speakers, Jose Ruiz, the city's liaison to the Hispanic community, and his assistant, Lorena Beltran. "Many of them come from countries where they can't afford to trust authority," Ruiz said.

Once the group got inside, they often found crowded conditions. Rutillo Ramos lives in a Broadway apartment with four other men. "We had a fire alarm, but it doesn't work anymore," he said.

Rutillo smiled as firefighters installed and tested a new device, which emitted a loud beep. A man sleeping under an American flag print blanket stirred but didn't get up. "We work at night and sleep during the day," Rutillo said in Spanish. "But I don't think he'll mind if he knows we're getting smoke detectors."

Rutillo said that he had heard of last week's fatal fire and that many immigrants worried about a similar fate. "Life here is hard," he said. "When you have a lot of people living close together, bad things can happen."

Others had not developed fire escape plans. Jose Gonzalez, a native of Mexico City, lost his left leg in a traffic accident in 2002 and cannot get around without crutches. But Gonzalez said he wasn't sure how he would escape his house if fire broke out.

"It's something I'll need to think about," he said while sitting on his living room couch. Other immigrants said they were forced to pay exorbitant fees to live in small rooms with others. While they know the situation is dangerous, they aid theywere reluctant to complain to officials for fear of retribution.

One man, who said he paid $40 a week to live in a small room in a dilapidated rowhouse, wouldn't give out his name or phone number because he feared his landlady could evict him if he complained.

Marvin Briscoe, ombudsman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, told the man that he would not get in trouble. "We'll make sure you don't get thrown out on the street," he said.

Firefighters plan to return to the neighborhood later in the week.

Graziano said that city workers would have to work to gain the trust of immigrants. City code prohibits more than four unrelated people living in the same unit, but Graziano said he would hold landlords, not tenants, responsible for violations.

"We're not here to threaten people," he said. "We're here to protect lives."

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