BURLINGTON — The King Street apartment building where two people died in a fire this past weekend had a considerable list of rental code violations. But the city’s head inspector said those violations did not cause or contribute to the blaze.
Documents obtained by VTDigger show that the six-unit apartment building, managed by Full Circle Property Management, had a range of issues spanning years. Inspectors documented broken windows, broken front-door knobs, peeling paint, missing smoke alarms and water damage. According to the city’s property database, the building had only a one-year certificate of compliance, which had expired in March.
But the city’s director of permitting and inspections, Bill Ward, said the building’s violations were not severe and did not pose safety risks to residents at the time of the fire. Additionally, he said the city’s property database lacks further details about the building’s compliance. Still, some residents of the building raised concerns about its safety.
The Saturday morning fire claimed the lives of Henry Burawa, 55, and Michael Loyer, 31, who resided in separate apartments in the 199 King St. building. The fire has so far been determined accidental by the Burlington Fire Department. “One of the occupants fell asleep with smoking materials that ignited nearby combustibles,” a release from the department stated.
A Gofundme campaign has been established for Loyer, who left behind an 8-year-old daughter.
“Mike was a loyal father, son and friend. He was a giant presence with a soft spot for those in need — close friends and strangers alike,” the fundraiser states. As of Tuesday night, nearly $8,500 had been raised.
A statement provided to VTDigger by Full Circle’s lawyers said the rental company “expresses its heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the families and friends of the two residents who perished in this weekend’s unfortunate fire, as well as to the residents whose lives were disrupted by the fire.
“We cannot comment at this time with regard to the cause of the fire because the investigation is still in the preliminary stages. Full Circle will cooperate completely with the public authorities who are endeavoring to determine a precise cause. At these early stages, we have not received any information that suggests that the cause of the fire was related to an unsafe condition in the building,” it stated.
“Resident safety is of paramount priority for Full Circle Property Management,” it continued. “The company fully expects that the ongoing investigation will demonstrate that every aspect of the life safety features of the building were operable and compliant with local code at the time of this incident.”
‘Everything was just kind of a mess’
One resident who escaped the early morning fire, who declined to provide their identity, said that when the fire took hold in the building their unit’s fire alarm didn’t alert them to the danger. They said they did hear Burawa’s alarm above them.
“I think the fact that the fire alarms were not connected meant that many of them, including mine, didn’t go off until after the building was already seriously unsafe, if they went off at all,” the person said.
The Burlington Fire Department’s press release stated that the building was equipped with smoke alarms but that it didn’t have a sprinkler system or a monitored fire alarm that would call the fire department automatically.
Alden Bisson had lived at the King Street building this past fall and had moved out in November. He had lived in the top floor of the building on the left side — one of the units most impacted by the fire. The fire began in the third unit and rose through the floors.
While living in the apartment, he noticed the appliances weren’t in working order and there were leaks in the plumbing.
“Everything was just kind of a mess,” Bisson said. “It looked like nothing had been upgraded or repaired in quite some time.”
One of his most serious concerns rested with the stove, which was at one point leaking gas while he was living in the apartment. He said it took more than a month for the appliance to be replaced by property managers. He said his safety concerns contributed to his desire to move out.
Bisson had also provided a statement to the Burlington Tenants Union about his experience living in the apartment. He faulted a building inspector for not rectifying the issues with the stove, but after Bisson had spoken with Ward about his experience, he determined that the person he met was likely not a city inspector. Bisson emphasized that the fire is still being investigated and that he does not want to blame any party before that investigation is finalized.
A history of violations
Since Saturday’s fire, Ward said he’s been pulling documents to better understand the state of the building when the fire broke out.
While the city’s website shows that the property’s certificate of compliance expired on April 27, 2020, Ward said the building had received a temporary certificate of compliance because Covid-19 had delayed an inspection scheduled for March 31.
Additionally, the city’s website only showed that the building gained compliance for one year. Ward said the building had actually gained compliance for two years. This building’s former compliance process had begun in 2018, Ward said, but the certificate had not been formally issued until April 2019, which made it seem that the building had only been approved for a year.
This had some raising concerns on social media that the building was in severe disrepair because it had only gained one year of compliance.
The city of Burlington grants five years of compliance before a new inspection is required to buildings with zero violations and four years of compliance to buildings that have five or fewer minor violations. Ward said 70%-80% of rental units in the city receive four or five years of compliance.
This time frame becomes shorter the more frequent and severe these violations are.
Following the pushback of the March inspection, a new inspection was scheduled for October 2020. That inspection documented flaking paint in various areas, a “spongy” bathroom floor, a broken front door knob, damaged windows, a cracked kitchen floor and water damage. The most severe violation was that a “heat tag” inspection was out of date, meaning that the apartment’s heating system hadn’t been recently checked for safety.
Ward said this most severe violation had been addressed before the fire. The property managers had requested an extension, and the city granted it, to make the rest of the repairs by Feb. 1, 2021.
Documents show that the property has had issues dating back to 2018, the period covered by VTDigger’s records request. A February 2020 report documents that a smoke alarm was missing from a converted bedroom. (Ward said this had been fixed and addressed.) That report also documented issues with a bedroom floor and a balcony door that had gaps and wasn’t sealed correctly.
In January 2020, inspectors had also responded to a tenant complaint that windows in a unit were not properly sealed and letting in cold air. Property managers had addressed the complaint.
In March 2018, when the building was under ownership of Appletree Bay Property Management, the building underwent another inspection that found out-of-date heat tags, damaged baseboard heat covers, peeling paint, a plumbing leak, a disrepaired piece of wall, broken bathroom vents and a missing smoke detector. These issues were addressed to receive the two-year compliance.
Ward said the violations that were found in October 2020, beyond the heat tag that was addressed, weren’t severe enough to have caused the fire or contribute to its spread throughout the building. He said he thinks the building was safe.
“The deficiencies are set up so that we can see which ones are higher safety hazards,” Ward said. “And so we wouldn’t allow a property to be occupied if there’s, for example, severe issues like sewage leaking, because that’s a threat to a person’s health.”
The Burlington Tenants Union is still leveling blame at the code enforcement office and the city for not holding landlords to more rigorous standards to keep tenants safe. In a press release, it references the King Street tenant’s account that the fire alarms weren’t triggered by the blaze. (Ward said this tenant lived below the affected apartment, and the rising smoke may not have triggered the alarm.)
“Urging ‘everyone to check your smoke alarms and fire systems regularly’ is cold comfort when it is the city and landlords’ legal responsibility to keep fire detectors updated and buildings up to code and fire resistant,” the union’s release stated, referencing Mayor Miro Weinberger’s statement on the fire.
It also requested that the city hold landlords more accountable for violations. It advocates for higher fines — the city charges a $75 reinspection fee if violations are not met, which increases as time goes on. The union also asks that inspectors provide tenants with compliance reports and do a better job of educating them about their code enforcement rights.
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