Fire may have been blessing in disguise

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 12, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Just weeks before a fire left two elderly Battery Avenue residents homeless, Suffolk code officials had declared the structure in &uot;severe disrepair.&uot;

According to Hattie Gillepsie, both a neighbor and sister to victim Charles Bivens, the 77-year-old and Elizabeth Thomas, 75, lived in substandard conditions in the South Suffolk neighborhood.


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&uot;It rained in the house,&uot; said Gillespie.

She added that the couple rented the bottom floor of the home for $200 per month, and heated the structure with both electrical heaters and a wood stove. Some months, utilities ran as high as $700, Gillespie confirmed with Thomas in an interview on Friday.

Last Sunday, the house caught fire around 8:28 a.m., starting in the inside the wall surrounding an unlined chimney. Flames spread across the living room ceiling and up the outside wall, engulfing the house, which was valued at $22,800.

The house has been condemned, and the owner Edwin Vaughan obtained a demolition permit on Friday, said Donald Bennett, the city’s code official.

Prior to the fire, Vaughn met with the city’s neighborhood development department, where its inspections bureau is housed, regarding the condition of the property. In a letter dated Nov. 8, referencing the Nov. 2 meeting, Bennett noted, &uot;As discussed, the above referenced property is in severe disrepair.&uot;

Vaughn had requested building permits to make upgrades to the house; however, the city concluded, &uot;Prior to (the) issuance of any building permits, an engineer letter from an architect or engineer licensed in the state of Virginia is required.&uot;

The letter was necessary to ascertain the level of deterioration, explained Bennett, in determining whether the house was stable enough to support the needed improvements.

In an interview on Friday, Bennett confirmed that, during the days leading up to the fire, code officials &uot;were presently working to get some information from the owner, asking for information on how he was going to repair the structure.&uot;

The detailed list of infractions was unavailable on Friday. Bennett did note that Vaughn had been cited for &uot;property maintenance issues. Basically,

there were some problems with the structure,&uot; he said.

While there were several repairs required to bring the property into compliance with statewide building code standards, Bennett said the property owner was still within his grace period to make the corrections. Code officials had also required him to submit a detailed repair list.

Since the fire, the residents have continued to receive assistance from the Suffolk chapter of the American Red Cross. They stayed in a local hotel until they were evicted on Thursday due to the elderly couple’s inability to adequately keep the room clean, according to Gillepsie.

As long as she has a home, while it’s already crowded with several family members, Gillepsie said Bivens and Thomas both have a place to stay.

They have continued to look for affordable housing to no avail.

&uot;We have been trying to look for different places,&uot; said Gillepsie.

&uot;They can’t afford the high rent. They just keep falling through the cracks. There is no affordable housing.&uot;