Northampton's Meadowbrook tenants displaced by fire worried about what’s next
Alexandra Mello, who was displaced by a fire at Meadowbrook Apartments in Northampton Monday, sits in her room at the Clarion Hotel Wednesday. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Thirty-nine tenants of the Meadowbrook Apartments building that was heavily damaged by fire will need to be out of their temporary housing by Friday with no clear idea of where they will be after that.
Alexandra Mello, her 3-year-old son, Matteo, and 37 other tenants of Building 2 at Meadowbrook Apartments in Florence are being given temporary housing at the Clarion Hotel in Northampton following a fire that heavily damaged their building Monday.
But according to Mello and others staying at the hotel, their accommodations are only guaranteed through Friday. They’ve had no definite word on where they will be able to live after that.
“Most of us are one step away from falling through the cracks or hitting bottom,” Mello said. “I have no idea where I’m going after Saturday.”
Tenants were informed Wednesday afternoon that the Clarion will not have room after Friday to accommodate the families so Meadowbrook is trying to find other hotel accommodations, said Mello.
The problem is those new rooms could be as far away as Springfield and many of those displaced do not have transportation, she said.
To make matters worse, she said, tenants were told they would be responsible for clearing out their apartments so restoration crews could repair the water and smoke damage, and then they will need to bring all of their possessions back inside.
Some tenants are hampered by disabilities or health problems like asthma, making it difficult at best to do that kind of work, especially in a smoke-damaged building where the air quality is poor, Mello said.
Tenants will not be able to move back in until all of the work is done and the entire building and all of its apartments are deemed safe, she said.
The work could take as long as two weeks and Meadowbrook has only guaranteed another week’s worth of financing to pay for temporary housing, Mello said.
“They’re asking people to do things that aren’t do-able,” she said.
Jennifer Cavaco, regional property supervisor for Preservation Housing Management, the company that manages Meadowbrook, said “our ultimate goal is to get people back in as soon as possible.”
But, she said that is “contingent on the cooperation of residents.”
Cavaco confirmed that removing property from the apartments is the sole responsibility of the tenants.
When asked if her company would continue to provide housing until Meadowbrook’s Building 2 is safe to re-enter, she said. “At this point, we’re taking it day by day. We will re-evaluate the situation at such time it becomes an issue.”
Cavaco said water and electricity were restored to the building by Wednesday night and a gas line inspection is scheduled for Thursday.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re doing everything we can,” she said.
One of the most frustrating parts of the ordeal, Mello said, is a lack of communication between Meadowbrook management and the displaced tenants.
“I understand they’re busy and dealing with a crisis, but we lost our homes — none of us know where we’re going,” she said. “I feel in limbo.”
In addition to the uncertainty about how long her stay will be, there are limitations to the hotel itself and the emergency provisions that were made, Mello said.
She said she and her son received a $75 lump sum of emergency funds from the American Red Cross.
The money goes fast, she said, especially when feeding the two of them. The rooms do not have refrigerators, stoves or microwaves.
“I can’t even give my son a glass of milk,” Mello said.
With no word on when tenants might be able to move back in, Mello said she’s been diligently apartment hunting, but as summer winds down and fall approaches, many apartments she can afford are already rented.
“It’s not healthy for my son,” she said. “I need a permanent place for my son.
“Until it happens to you, you don’t know what it feels like. I never thought a fire would happen to me.”
She said tenants were given time Monday and Tuesday to retrieve items from their apartments, but were only able to leave with what they could carry. Most of everyone’s belongings are still inside the building, she said.
After her last brief trip into the building, she said, the air quality was so poor her lungs were “burning for hours” afterward.
That experience raises concerns for her about what long-term health effects the smoke and water damage from firefighters battling the blaze might have on her son.
Matteo is old enough to know what a fire is and that his building is damaged and that the two of them can’t return right away, she said.
Mello said when her son learned the pair would be staying in a hotel he was excited because he thought she said “show and tell,” not having a concept of what a hotel is. But the appeal of an extended stay has seemed to wear off for him now.
“I like the hotel, but I’m ready to go home,” Mello said he told her.
On Tuesday, the state fire marshal’s office determined the fire was caused by a child playing with a lighter.
Mello said she doesn’t harbor any ill will based on that revelation.
“It could have happened anywhere with any child,” she said. “It’s really sad, I feel a lot of compassion for the family.
“Others may blame them, but I don’t,” she said.
Mello, 37, who works as an education and career counselor in Chicopee and teaches yoga, said she wonders how her neighbors, many of whom are on fixed incomes, will be able to find a new place to live, if need be.
Meadowbrook, she said, is “the only place I could afford to live with heat and utilities.”
Mello said most of the displaced families don’t have cars, which makes getting groceries, supplies or getting to work difficult.
“I’m very lucky to be here with a car,” she said.
Wendy Johnson, along with her husband, Mark Kretchmar, both 39, and their two daughters, 11 and 17, are also staying at the hotel.
Johnson said she feels fortunate that she has a car and the added assistance of friends in the area who can help store food and other items for them until they can find permanent shelter.
Because she can’t leave her youngest at the hotel alone, she was applying to take a leave of absence from her job as a human resources coordinator in Greenfield.
Johnson said that while she was contacting her employer to apply for that leave of absence, she was informed over the phone that she was being fired for absenteeism.
The person on the other end of the phone wasn’t aware that Johnson had been out of work due to the fire, but didn’t change the decision.
“I was flabbergasted,” Johnson said. “Take your job and shove it, I really am at that point.”
She, too, wonders what will happen at the end of the week.
“What do we do after Friday?” she asked.
Johnson said the neighbors are all helping each other as much as they can, especially with rides, but all of those extra trips mean burning a lot of gas, eating up a lot of the Red Cross money.
Johnson said her daughters, despite being able to bring some electronics out of the apartment, are starting to get bored and frustrated.
The meeting between the tenants and Medowbrook management was scheduled for 3:30 Wednesday afternoon, and calls were made to tenants about 1:30 asking them to come to the complex if they wanted to attend.
The timing of the call and need to travel to Meadowbrook to attend were also sources of frustration for Johnson and others.
She wondered why management didn’t come to the hotel for the meeting rather than make people, most of whom don’t have cars and many who have children, make arrangements to travel across town on two hours’ notice.
“I don’t know how people get by without a vehicle, but they do,” Johnson said.
Kretchmar said it’s the uncertainty of what the next few days hold that upsets him the most.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be living in a car or what,” he said.
As frustrating and uncertain as the situation is, Kretchmar said he’s been touched by the generosity of others sympathetic to his plight.
He said his supervisor at Millstone Farm Market, where he works as a meat cutter, has been gracious with time off and extra cash to help his family get back on its feet. A flat tire was repaired quickly and for free Wednesday afternoon at Pete’s Tire Barn in Northampton after staff there learned of his situation.
“The place you live at should help, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s your neighbors, it’s your employers, it’s a total stranger, out of nowhere, willing to help.”
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.