It isn’t clear where the residents — as many as 200 — of two historic downtown apartments will go on Friday, when Yakima officials say everyone has to be out because of persistent code violations.
Yakima County officials and low-income housing advocates trying to find temporary housing for the residents say they’ve never dealt with such a large number in such a short time. It won’t be easy. One county official called the job “almost impossible.”
City officials say the owner of the Cascade and Senator apartments finally seems to be making real progress on repairing the buildings’ broken fire alarm systems and holes in walls and ceilings. But officials say they don’t think the repairs will be finished before the noon Friday deadline.
“Now, all of a sudden, it’s a priority,” said Joe Caruso, head of the city’s code enforcement department.
The violations, which the city first raised with the owner in December, could mean the difference between life and death, he said. “If there’s a fire in there, nobody would know about it, and with the sheet rock penetrations in floors and ceilings, a fire would travel throughout that building in no time.”
Located on A Street in the city’s North Front Street Historic District, the two buildings, which date to the early 20th century, are connected by a skybridge and contain a total of about 90 units.
The violations don’t apply to the businesses on the ground floor, including North Town Coffeehouse, which will be allowed to remain.
Despite the violations’ seriousness, the city gave the owner more than seven months to address the issues. He kept telling the city that he needed more time to resolve the problems, which Yakima granted him, City Manager Tony O’Rourke said, adding: “It’s been one excuse after another.”
But that means residents spent seven months in buildings with serious fire hazards.
“It’s a fair criticism, but I guess we kept on believing in good faith that the owner was making those repairs,” O’Rourke said.
In contrast, North First Street property owners have been very good about addressing code violations when the city has given them more time, he said.
The buildings’ owner, Aaron Stewart of Tacoma, could not be reached for comment Monday. Last week, he told the Yakima Herald-Republic he thinks the “buildings are in good working order.”
When Stewart purchased the apartment complexes, along with the Savoy Apartments at 322 W. Yakima Ave., in 2004 for $1 million, he talked about renovating them into historic apartments to attract urban dwellers to downtown. Instead, the Cascade and Senator apartments have been the scene of fires and some violence. In December 2011, police shot to death a man at the Cascade Apartments after they said he threatened them with a large kitchen knife and refused commands to put it down.
Yakima Police Capt. Rod Light said officers have responded to the buildings 142 times in the past 12 months.
Like many residents, Jacob Lewis isn’t sure where he’ll go come Friday.
He moved to the Cascade Apartments more than 21/2 years ago because he can afford the $400 monthly rent and the location fits his parole requirements.
He’s grateful for having a place to get his life back together, but “what you hear and what people say about the building is pretty much true,” Lewis said.
Like other residents, he didn’t want to comment directly on the buildings’ conditions. Some described problems with plumbing and appliances furnished with the apartments, but didn’t want to give their names.
The property manager wouldn’t let news media inside, but boarded up windows and torn curtains could be seen from the outside.
Relocating so many residents in such a short time is “almost impossible,” said Tim Sullivan, a senior program manager at the Yakima County Department of Human Services.
Sullivan’s department has joined with the Northwest Justice Project and the Homeless Network of Yakima County to help residents find temporary housing.
They’ll start meeting with residents Wednesday, he said.
Under state law, the owner, Stewart, is financially responsible to pay their relocation costs, said Kathy Tierney, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project.
But as of Monday afternoon, he hadn’t returned phone calls, Sullivan said.
The county and city could front the money for relocation, and then get it back from Stewart.
In the meantime, it isn’t clear where the residents will go, since the Yakima area has few vacant apartments, Sullivan said.
“What we need is for landlords who are willing to help to come forward,” he said.
Parolees will also have to work with the state Department of Corrections about relocation, he said.
The buildings’ residents include 10 Level II and Level III registered sex offenders, according to the Yakima County Sheriff’s website.