Burned once, but not twice

Johnston residents displaced by Simmons Village fire feared second round of homelessness

Posted 6/29/23

They almost lost their homes twice in one month.

Midday Tuesday, a Rhode Island Housing official, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Seth Magaziner confirmed that state and federal housing officials …

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Burned once, but not twice

Johnston residents displaced by Simmons Village fire feared second round of homelessness


They almost lost their homes twice in one month.

Midday Tuesday, a Rhode Island Housing official, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Seth Magaziner confirmed that state and federal housing officials finally struck a deal to cover temporary housing for 20-30 Johnston residents displaced by the May 28 Simmons Village fire.

As the end of June approached, some of the residents, many living in temporary housing in Warwick, were starting to panic.

Displaced Simmons Village resident Evelyn Englehardt called the Johnston Sun Rise Monday morning. She hadn’t heard back from numerous phone calls placed to state and federal agencies and Johnston’s Washington delegation.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I may lose my home again. I could be homeless on Saturday.”

Englehardt needed answers no one seemed willing to provide.

Constituent Services

“This is an extremely difficult situation,” Reed said Tuesday afternoon. “Every one of these residents must have a stable, decent place to live until property rehab is completed. No displaced family should be forced out on the street or have to shoulder these increased costs alone.”

Reed, a member of both the Appropriations Committee and the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees federal housing programs, had previously helped secure $1.1 billion in flexible State Fiscal Recovery Funds (SFRF) in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

According to Reed’s office, the state is committing more than $320 million in SFRF funds for housing related programs. 

“I am working with both federal and in-state entities to identify all available federal funding options,” Reed said. “I led successful efforts to secure millions of dollars in federal housing funds and pandemic aid for Rhode Island and have worked to ensure the state has the flexibility it needs to effectively allocate this assistance.  I am hopeful there is a way federal funds can help cover these costs.”

Reed recognized the ticking clock.

“Time is of the essence and my office continues to monitor the situation and ensure federal funds are wisely used to help those in need,” he assured constituents.

The building at 343 Simmonsville Ave. was evacuated on Sunday, May 28, after flames fully engulfed the façade, creeping up to the building from burning mulch.

A carelessly discarded cigarette has been the only possible cause suggested by residents and publicly discussed by fire investigators. The building complex has strict rules for residents who smoke, but some residents say the rules are rarely followed, and the mulch has not been sprayed with fire retardant.

Late Tuesday morning, Magaziner’s spokesman, James Kwon, released a statement on behalf of the congressman:

“We have worked with HUD to ensure that the displaced tenants of Simmons Village will continue to have access to federal housing support, and have received a commitment from HUD that they will continue to make payments for the residents’ housing.”

Expired Response

On June 21, Picerne released a statement on the Simmons Village website.

“The initial response included partnership between agencies such as The Red Cross, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Atwood Pharmacy and others,” they posted. “In the first days, Picerne management helped to obtain and fund extended stay hotel reservations for the month of June for those households who were in need of immediate housing.”

The end of June quickly approached.

“The secondary phase of response has been multi-faceted,” the property group informed residents. “Picerne management has been busy working closely with the residents as folks determine how they wish to handle their salvageable contents. At this time, the removal of personal belongings from the building is complete, so that the restoration work can escalate at a faster pace.”

Englehardt said she and other residents have still not recovered all of their belongings.

“Picerne management has also been engaged in ongoing and frequent communication with Rhode Island Housing, The Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as other local/state agencies in the hopes of procuring additional funding so that those who wish to, might remain housed in the extended stay hotel beyond June 30,” they announced last week. “At this time, funding has not yet been committed, but those efforts are ongoing.”

Picerne assured residents that “the rebuilding process is already well underway and brighter days are ahead” and the company “is committed to expediting the renovation of the apartment building so that all residents who wish to return to their homes may do so, as quickly as possible.”

Neighborhood Disaster

On Monday, Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. argued for the resolution of the housing crisis facing the Simmons Village residents.

“I’ve talked to several residents both the day of the fire, both when I was on site during the fire and in my office since the incident and both times referred them all to Congressman Magaziner’s office,” Polisena explained. “I don’t have the legal authority to move them because unlike Aime J. Forand and other units run by the Johnston Housing Authority, Simmons Village is a privately managed complex owned by Picerne Realty and the funding for their low-income housing is from the federal government through HUD.”

Polisena sympathized, but his hands were tied.

“The residents I’ve spoken to have told me Picerne is currently paying for their lodging,” Polisena said prior to learning of the ultimate resolution. “The fact that Picerne will only pay to house them up until June 30th, while their original homes are inhabitable, is sad and very telling about the company Picerne really is. They should pay to house their residents until their units are habitable.”

Then, following the brokered deal was confirmed, Polisena expressed relief.

“I was on the phone with individuals from Rhode Island Housing earlier and also spoke to Secretary Pryor,” Polisena said. “He informed me RI Housing is going to provide the funds for the residents to remain in their hotels. I am grateful to the State and Secretary Pryor for using their funds to help these residents.”

Christine Hunsinger, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer for Rhode Island Housing, confirmed that representatives from her agency, including state Department of Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, met Tuesday morning “at the urging of Gov. Dan McKee’s office.”

“We have identified federal funds,” Hunsinger said Tuesday. The property managers helped state officials gather the “necessary documentation” to ensure the “folks who are currently in the hotel, and in need of hotel assistance, should be able to stay in that hotel until they are able to return home or Sept. 30, 2025 (whichever comes first).”

According to Hunsinger, Piscerne plans to have the units ready prior to that date, and “between 20 and 30 (Simmons Village residents),  we anticipate needing assistance long-term.”

The rest have been able to stay with family, or make other accommodations.

Hunsinger said conversations regarding the near-future temporary housing needs of the fire victims have been ongoing throughout the past week, but the agency still “needed to dot some i’s and cross some t’s.”

She estimated the agency will pay around $175,000 to $250,000 to help cover the temporary rentals.

Englehardt, feeling “relieved” Tuesday afternoon, had a long list of people she wanted to thank for their help finalizing the temporary solution.

“I want to thank everyone for their help and support,” she said. “Especially to Sen. Reed and Seth Magaziner’s office and to our local newspaper that went above and beyond our expectations ... Add to that all the state organizations like Legal Aid, Elderly Affairs and RI Housing.”

One woman was hospitalized for weeks following the fire at 343 Simmonsville Ave. According to friends, she’s fighting to recover at a Greenville rehabilitation center, experiencing a range of complications.

“She's feeling like we did,” Englehardt said. “Depressed and scared.”


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