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Renter seeks help after house fire

CHAMPAIGN -- A family whose house was seriously damaged in an electrical fire Monday say they cannot afford to rent a new home because their landlord refuses to return their deposit or refund the remainder of January’s rent.

Trinidad Morales’ family – which includes her husband, 2-year-old daughter, pregnant sister, brother-in-law, and 1-year-old nephew –is now sleeping in a friend’s living room. Morales’s other two daughters were visiting their sick grandmother in Mexico when the fire occurred and cannot return to Champaign until the family finds a new place to live.

A fire that started in the attic of the rented home at 1309 Sunset Dr, C., destroyed one bedroom and left the rest of the three-bedroom ranch home damaged by smoke and water. Three days after the fire, Christmas decorations still hung on the walls and a toy sat in the doorway covered with soggy insulation. Clothes and furniture in the other two bedrooms were smoky, but otherwise undamaged. “But we don’t have a place to take them,” Morales said.

“We don’t have any money,” said Morales, 25, who works at Taco Bell. “We just paid the rent – $675.”

Morales said she gave a $300 deposit to the property owner, Dawn Carley, when she rented the home more than a year ago. After the fire, she asked Carley to return the deposit and a pro-rated amount of January’s rent – about $435 – because the family can no longer live in the house.

Morales spoke through an interpreter at the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center in Urbana. The center assists immigrants such as Morales, who moved to Champaign from Mexico 10 years ago.

Carley said the deposit was only $200; she said she has already offered the family $150.

“As soon as I know how much is due to her, I will give it to her,” Carley said. “I have to find out when she’s going to get her stuff before I can finalize how much she can get back.
“Legally, I have 30 days from the time she vacates the property.”

According to city officials, a housing complaint was investigated at the residence in 2005, but the city told The News-Gazette it needed to file a Freedom of Information request to view the report.

The American Red Cross paid for Morales’ family to stay in a hotel for three nights. The family is now living with friends until they can save enough money for a rental deposit, first-month’s rent and other moving expenses.

The night of the fire, Morales said, the lights started to flicker before the family went to bed. Champaign fire officials caution residents to notify an electrician or their landlord if lights begin flickering since that can indicate serious electrical problems.

Morales said she was reluctant to call her landlord because previous problems, including a malfunctioning furnace, had not been repaired.

“The day was very cold, and we turned on all the space heaters,” Morales said about the night of the fire. “Then the power started going off.”

Her brother-in-law smelled smoke around midnight, evacuated the family and then ran door-to-door to ask neighbors to call the fire department.

According to a city fire report, no smoke detectors were found in the home. Morales said she never saw any smoke detectors in the home.

City ordinance requires smoke detectors in the bedrooms of rental homes, as well as common areas within 15 feet of bedrooms. Landlords who do not install smoke detectors can face a fine of up to $750 per day, per violation. However, the city does not inspect single-family rental homes unless a tenant files a complaint, said Michael Novotny, acting property maintenance supervisor for the City of Champaign.

“I wish she had come to us prior to the fire,” Novotny said. “I guess she just didn’t know who to turn to.”

Carley insisted the furnace did work and that other repairs have also been made. She also said Morales removed smoke detectors.

The city code does not spell out what actions landlords must take if a home becomes unlivable because of fire. Nor does the city intervene in legal matters between a tenant and landlord, Novotny said.

“If she doesn’t have funds for an attorney, she can apply for legal aid,” he said.

Morales’ case highlights shortcomings in the system that affect “dozens of people each week,” said Esther Patt, coordinator of the Tenant Union at the University of Illinois. “I don’t think the average homeowner, News-Gazette reader or politician knows about this.” 


The News-Gazette/Trinidad Morales, 25, sits inside the bedroom of her rental house Thursday afternoon that was damaged by an electrical fire on Monday.



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