Fire-stricken Champaign family lacks funds to relocate

Fire-stricken Champaign family lacks funds to relocate

By: Shelley Smithson

By: Shelley Smithson

By: Shelley Smithson

By: Shelley Smithson

CHAMPAIGN – Members of 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 damage deposit or refund the remainder of January's rent.

The landlord said she will return some of the money, but notes she has a month to do so.

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' 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 Drive, 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 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.

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 prorated amount of January's rent – about $435 – because the family can no longer live in the house.

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 Act request to view the report. The newspaper filed that request on Friday afternoon.

The American Red Cross paid for Morales' family to stay in a hotel for three nights. The family is now living with friends to 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.

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

The city's report says, "No smoke alarms were evident in the home, although there was an empty wall mount outside the room where fire was found."

About the C-U Citizen Access project

This report is part of a joint project of The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County.

The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette community foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the UI.

The project also has launched a Web site for this and other material, including user-generated content. It can be found at www.cu-citizenaccess.org.

A three-part series on rental properties and inspections begins in Sunday's News-Gazette.

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