Boise & Garden City

Fatal Boise apartment fire destroyed key electrical gear, 24 families can’t move back

The family of Man Sing Tamang and Nima Tamang, originally from Bhutan, is among those left homeless by the apartment complex fire.
The family of Man Sing Tamang and Nima Tamang, originally from Bhutan, is among those left homeless by the apartment complex fire. efenner@idahostatesman.com

The fire that killed 1 resident Saturday at Building A of Boise’s Arbor Crossing Apartments also destroyed key electrical equipment, meaning tenants of the entire building will all have to find new places to live.

The city of Boise sent a building inspector to the complex Wednesday, who then deemed the entire building unsuited for residents.

“The building has no power and by code people are not allowed to reside in the apartments (without power),” said city spokesman Mike Journee.

The damage won’t be an easy fix, he said.

“It’s my understanding that all of the hardware for where the power comes in the building was in that central breezeway where the building burned,” Journee said. “They're going to have to do some replacement of significant infrastructure to make it work right.”

Messages left this week for management company Cottonwood Residential had not been returned as of Thursday. But at a multi-agency resource center set up at Pierce Park Baptist Church to aid the 32 children and 43 adults displaced by the fire, staffers with the International Rescue Committee showed the Statesman a copy of a Thursday letter to residents from Cottonwood Residential, informing them of the problem.

“We would like to have been able to move in residents in units only affected with smoke damage,” it states. “Unfortunately, all indicators point to this not being a feasible option.”

The letter blames “damage to the building’s systems that are required for occupancy” and the company writes that it doesn’t expect to “meet strict local standards for a certificate of occupancy.”

It appears the company also made phone calls. Speaking shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, tenant Renee Martinez said she had just heard from the apartment complex’s local office and had been told all of its units were deemed unlivable. She said she was told the property managers would return her deposit and her December rent.

A person who answered the phone for Arbor Crossing on Wednesday evening again referred questions to the corporate office for Cottonwood Residential, whose offices were closed by that point.

Five people were injured and one woman died at the Arbor Crossing complex fire. It’s still unclear what caused the blaze, Tammy Barry, a spokeswoman for the Boise Fire Department, said Wednesday.

Confusion for 1 tenant

Martinez has three boys, ages 16, 11 and 9. Since the fire her sons have stayed at their father’s home.

She was getting groceries when the fire happened, and has been instructed not to reenter her apartment, even for medication. But, she said, she did go back once for medicines — escorted by police — before she knew that, and while she doesn’t know the status of her belongings they seemed to look OK at that point.

Her sons’ Christmas presents are still in the apartment, she said.

She insists she’s better off than many of the tenants who live in the complex, in subsidized apartments, some of whom are refugees or who have fewer resources than Martinez.

“We have a lot of refugees in that building with big families,” she said. “They’re finding places for all their kids.”

The night of the fire, the Red Cross arrived with pizza and debit cards to be used for hotel stays and other necessities, Martinez said.

Since then the organization has been coordinating with each of the families to try to get them back on their feet, including helping coordinate the 25-agency resource center. But even with all the help, it’s still a struggle. Emergency funds run out fast, Martinez said.

“You have to get shampoo and deodorant and socks and underwear,” she said. It all adds up.

She said she’s felt grateful for the support she’s gotten from the community. Her co-workers at Capitol Bar took up a fund for her, and the Boise School District offered to pay first and last months’ rent on an apartment at the beginning of the school year.

Fire largely hits refugee and immigrant families

Sara Nyavamuhima, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was at a church meeting when the fire destroyed her home at Arbor Crossing.

“I heard phone calls coming and people calling me and there was something going on at the apartment,” Nyavamuhima said through a translator.

She uses a wheelchair and has health issues that curb her mobility, but her church community has provided support and even transportation during this crisis period. She’s intermittently stayed at hotels and with friends, but she’s not sure what’s next. She lives with her two daughters and one granddaughter. She struggles with the English language, but has been able to lean on the Red Cross and other support services to find her next home.

Man Sing Tamang and his wife Nima Tamang, originally from Bhutan, are staying with parents in a two-bedroom apartment. Nine people are sharing that space right now (including three children), and it’s been difficult on the Tamang children, the couple said through a translator.

“We’re in pain because we’ve never faced this situation before,” Man Sing said.

It’s a difficult time to find housing, and now they’re not close to the school bus stop the kids used.

Julianne Donnelly Tzul, executive director for IRC operations in Boise, said most of the people the multi-agency resource center has served so far have been refugees and immigrants.

Tzul said it’s been a trying time for those who were displaced. But community and agency support means everyone has a roof over their head.

“It is always shocking and traumatizing and hard, but nobody’s immediate safety is at risk (going forward),” she said.

What about refunds, retrieving belongings?

Though she’s been able to speak some with local office staff, Martinez said she’s struggled to get Cottonwood Residential on the phone to answer questions.

The letter shown to the Statesman Thursday addresses some major items, including how soon residents can get their belongings back.

Cottonwood Residential wrote that it intends to “provide access as soon as possible” for people to retrieve personal items. A structural engineer apparently visited the building Wednesday and is compiling a report.

For apartments that the company decides are safe to enter, residents will be allowed in at a future point with an escort. But in cases where structural integrity is a concern, and for apartments directly damaged by fire, the company will bar access. A Cottonwood Residential disaster recovery team will determine what’s salvageable in those units and recover what it can.

Refunds for all tenants should start showing up as soon as Friday, the letter states. The company writes it will return “the full balance” of each apartment’s security deposit, and the full December rent for those who have already paid it.

The letter suggests five other apartment complexes for tenants to look for space at. In Boise: Towne Square Apartments on Allumbaugh Street, Edgewater Apartments on Lakeharbor Lane and Civic Plaza on Front Street. In Garden City: Boulder Creek Apartments on Garrett Street, and Trailwinds Apartments on East 42nd Street.

Do you want to help the affected tenants?

Some options:

▪  United Way of Treasure Valley has set up a fund at this link.

▪  The Boise Schools Foundation is collecting donations for school-aged children and their families here.

▪  Donate to the Red Cross: redcross.org/Idaho, 800-853-2570 or mail checks to American Red Cross of Greater Idaho, 5380 W. Franklin Road, Boise, ID 83705.

▪  Or, of course, contact any of the resource center partners mentioned below about other ways to support them.

Erin Fenner: 208-377-6207, @erinfenner

The Statesman’s Audrey Dutton contributed.

Agencies involved in the multi-agency resource center

  • Ada County Emergency Management
  • Agency for New Americans
  • American Red Cross of Greater Idaho
  • Boise Fire
  • City of Boise
  • Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority
  • Boise School District
  • Boise School Foundation
  • Boise School Transportation
  • Calvary Chapel
  • CATCH
  • Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's 2-1-1 Idaho CareLine and Resource & Service Navigation programs
  • Idaho Humane Society
  • Idaho Office Emergency Management
  • Idaho Housing Authority
  • Idaho Office on Refugees
  • IDVOAD
  • International Rescue Committee
  • Jesse Tree
  • LDS Charities
  • The Salvation Army
  • United Methodist
  • United Way of Treasure Valley
  • Valley Regional Transit
  • World Relief
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