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Arson Suspected in Fire; 30 Still Homeless

Times Staff Writer

Glendale arson investigators say clothing doused with a flammable liquid and ignited in a third-floor stairwell probably caused the apartment house fire last week that injured 10 people and left more than 150 homeless.

A resident of the four-story apartment building at 228 S. Kenwood St. told fire officials that he saw the clothes burning and the stairwell catching fire, so he called the fire department, Glendale arson investigator Dennis Wilson said.

There are no suspects in the case, and city officials have been unable to find out who owns the building, Wilson said.

Housing Difficult to Find

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Meanwhile, the fire has created problems for many families, most of whom are Latinos, who lived in the 32-unit apartment house and who now say they cannot find housing they can afford near work and schools. Red Cross officials housed about 150 residents at the Wilson Junior High School gym from Saturday through Tuesday.

Bill Dutton, local Red Cross chapter executive director, said about 120 people have either found another apartment or are staying with friends or relatives. About 30 people still have no permanent place to stay.

Dutton said those who have been unable to find an apartment or a place to live this week were given money to stay at a motel for a few days. “But normally we only provide short-term shelter,” he said.

Some of those people say they are worried about what will happen to their families when the Red Cross relief ends.

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“I’m going to have to stay in my car,” said Mario Martinez, a displaced resident of the building. “There are families with eight and 10 children who have no place to go. We are looking for any kind of help.”

Relief for Families

Dutton said he expects that the Red Cross will spend about $30,000 on food, shelter and clothing for the families. Donations of money, he said, are especially needed.

“Normally, in a major disaster such as a brush fire or a mud slide, there is much more community support,” Dutton said. “But maybe one apartment building seems like an isolated thing, because we haven’t seen much of an outpouring.”

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John Korkis, Glendale’s coordinator of emergency services, said the city participates in relief efforts only when a state of emergency is declared by the state or federal government. “With a single apartment-house fire, it is relatively easy for the Red Cross to handle,” he said.

Many of the larger families--those with five to 10 members--have been living in single-, one- or two-bedroom apartments, former residents said. Many apartment owners will not accept large families or those with children, they said. Red Cross volunteers working with the families say it will be difficult for them to find housing they can afford in Glendale.

Most of the available housing in the area is more expensive than the $395 to $475 rents that were charged at the burned apartment house, said Yvonne Campbell, a Red Cross worker who has been helping the evacuated residents find a new home.

“So far, about 10 families have been placed in permanent locations,” Campbell said. “Many other families were sharing apartments, using their collective income to pay rent. When they are forced to split up, it makes it difficult.”

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Fire Code Violations

City officials have been trying to locate the building’s owner for the three months because of fire code violations, Glendale Assistant City Atty. Scott Howard said. Albert Leon, who faced numerous building code violations at the apartment house during the last five years and pleaded guilty to fire code violations there in 1982, claims that he no longer owns the property, Howard said.

Ken Preis is listed as the current owner, according to title documents obtained by the city, but he also denies being the owner, Howard said.

Fire inspectors last fall found that hallways and doors at the building must be replaced with fire-resistant materials to comply with city codes, Howard said. The improvements, which were never made, must be completed if the building is to be reoccupied, he said.

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City building inspectors last fall found that the building also failed to comply with housing standards, citing broken windows, peeling paint and general dilapidation of the structure, according to city records.

Children Facing a Move

Graffiti spray painted on the building has led investigators to suspect that the fire may have been started by gang members. “It could be fraud, or it could be a gang thing,” arson investigator Wilson said.

But for Maria Valles, 12, the cause of the fire is not as important as its effect on her life. The apartments had been her home for the three years, since her family arrived in the U.S. from Guadalajara. The John Marshall Elementary School sixth-grader said everyone in the building knew and looked out for each other.

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Valles and many of about 75 other children who lived in the building now face the prospect of new schools and new neighborhoods. Valles said she is sad and worried about where her family will move.

“I’m going to miss my friends,” she said.

Valles said her family’s clothes, furniture and television are still inside the second-floor, single apartment she shared with her parents and four brothers and sisters. Fire officials said they don’t know when or if the boarded-up building will be reoccupied, but they are making arrangements for residents to remove belongings.


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