Tenants, DC council air criticism, demand action after senior housing fire

WASHINGTON — The owner and the management company of Arthur Capper Senior Apartments declined to attend a fact-finding hearing held Thursday by D.C. officials parsing city response to a fire that displaced some 160 residents last month.

There’s still no explanation for what started the three-alarm fire that broke out on the top floor of the four-story building in the 900 block of 5th Street in Southeast D.C. and partially collapsed the roof.

D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean said an evaluation of equipment that could explain why the building’s fire alarms failed to sound should be completed within the next 90 days.

Dean also said his department will soon be implementing a program to inspect fire alarm systems in every building in the city with more than 10 housing units to make sure they’re working and not experiencing similar failures.

Five days after the fire, a man was discovered alive and well in his apartment. When the fire department decided not to conduct a secondary search and to retreat from the building that had begun to collapse, personnel had been informed that every resident of the building had been accounted for and that no one was missing.

Dean said if everyone had not been accounted for, a secondary search would have happened.

“When someone tells you everyone’s accounted for, how do you trust that? And, how do you independently verify that?” Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, asked rhetorically.

Allen expressed frustration that city social service agencies were not able to clarify whether someone still was missing. “I am mystified. I am a little bit angry that there’s not a clear roll and roster of the residents in a building,” Allen said.

Fire victims testifying at the hearing described symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder they said they’re only now beginning to experience, prompting at-large Councilwoman Anita Bonds, chair of the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, to ask that case managers assigned to each individual plan at least quarterly checkups with them over the next year or so.

To that request, Jay Melder, the chief of staff to the deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, said case management related to the fire will continue as long as needed.

He also said multiple agencies, such as the Department of Aging, will work to connect Arthur Capper residents with support they might need for years to come.

The burned building provided housing for low-income seniors under Section 8 of the federal housing program. Of the 160 or so who were displaced, more than 70 are in the process of signing leases for new permanent housing, officials said.

Multiple city agencies are creating after-action reports, reviewing their response to the fire and efforts to assist displaced residents.

“I invited representatives from (building owner) Urban-Atlantic and Edgewood Management to come testify; they declined the invitation,” Allen said. “What we’ll be doing is following up with written questions and letters.”

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