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NBC 10 I-Team: Deadly Providence fire highlights city’s housing crisis

A triple-decker home on Bowdoin Street in Providence where Luzcelenia Feliciano died had a long history of code violations. (WJAR)

A triple-decker home on Bowdoin Street in Providence where Luzcelenia Feliciano died had a long history of code violations.

Experts say her death brings Providence’s shortage of affordable housing into sharp focus.

"The connection is absolutely apparent,” said Jennifer Hawkins, who is the executive director of One Neighborhood Builders, an Olneyville-based non-profit builds affordable homes in Providence.

"We have 375 apartments around Providence,” Hawkins said. “But the waiting list for those apartments can be upwards of three years."

With no affordable options, Hawkins said low-income families can be forced to turn to illegal and unsafe rentals.

Feliciano was one of several people who rented individual rooms from the property owner, Dexter Jackson.

Neighbors told NBC 10 that tenants paid $400 for their rooms, and a city inspector who visited the property just three days before the fatal fire noted that it was being operated as an illegal boarding house.

“These families are housing-cost burdened,” Hawkins said. “They're paying 50, 60, more percent of their income towards rent. Oftentimes, the housing that they're getting for that high cost is really poor."

The inspector’s report also revealed the deplorable conditions inside the home, documented in photos city officials released on Tuesday. There was no electricity, no running water and no heat during the coldest week of the year. Tenants were using space heaters and propane torches to keep warm, the inspector wrote, noting that the house “is a mess.”

Three days later, a fast-moving fire burned the triple-decker to the ground and severely damaged three other houses on the block. Feliciano was trapped on the second floor, investigators said.

A 2017 study from Housing Works RI at Roger Williams University found that an average two-bedroom apartment in Providence rents for about $1,200 a month. To afford that rent, a family needs to make about $48,000 a year, or $24 an hour. But at Rhode Island’s minimum wage of $9.60 an hour, even two adults working full-time can’t do that.

“What you end up with are families who are in overcrowded living situations, are forced to live in sub-standard housing conditions,” Hawkins said. "No one wants to raise a family in unsafe, unhealthy housing."

One Neighborhood Builders estimates Rhode Island will need an additional 37,000 affordable housing units in the next 10 years -- many of them in Providence.

Records obtained by the NBC 10 I-Team show tenants at 110 Bowdoin repeatedly complained to the city about conditions there. Tenant Roland Colpitts, who spoke with NBC 10 just after he escaped the fire, called the city’s 311 hotline, spoke with firefighters and even sent photos of the conditions.

"I just knew something like this was going to happen. Nobody listened! Nobody listened to us,” Colpitts said. “I'm mad. I'm mad that nothing was done, and I went through all the proper channels to try to report this."

Despite those calls and the inspector’s visit on January 3, tenants were allowed to stay -- with tragic results.

Hawkins hopes Feliciano’s death raises awareness of the need for safe, clean housing that working people can afford. One Neighborhood Builders and other local non-profits will hold an open house Saturday at 66 Chafee Street, just around the corner from the Bowdoin Street fire. People who lost their homes can apply for affordable housing, get a hot meal and pick up personal items they may need, like toiletries.

"I've been so impressed and humbled by just the kindness that people have shown in the neighborhood for the families,” Hawkins said.

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