Night Fire in Edgartown Leaves Fourteen Brazilians Homeless
By MANDY LOCKE
Charred Portuguese prayer books, scalded refrigerators and a few box springs are all that remain of the worldly possessions of 14 Brazilians who had been living in a three-bedroom house in Edgartown.
Fire destroyed the ranch-style house on Curtis Lane shortly before midnight on Oct. 10. A dozen Brazilians escaped with the shirts on their backs - awakened by one of the tenants who arrived home to see flames crawling up the wall of the back bedroom. The house, one tenant said, had no smoke detectors.
"I had gone to bed early. I was really tired," said 64-year-old Mercia Souza, the only woman in the 14-person household. She slept on a mattress in the attic.
At least $4,300 in cash - money saved to send to family members at home in Brazil - burned in Thursday's fire, as did most of the tenants' only forms of identification.
"The men work hard to save money to send home to Brazil," Ms. Souza, who cooked for over a dozen Brazilian men in exchange for her board, said Wednesday through a translator.
Owned by Benjamin Hall Sr. and Therese Hall, the 1,342-square-foot house, valued at $210,000, was a total loss. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, although officials suspect a space heater in the back bedroom.
When firefighters arrived at the scene Thursday night, flames engulfed the one-story house. The tenants, some fighting back tears, stood along Curtis Lane as firemen battled the flames for two hours. A team of firemen stayed through the night, soaking nearby houses to prevent a spread through the neighborhood.
"We didn't know what to expect when we arrived. It turned out well, but it could have been tragic," Edgartown fire chief Antone Bettencourt said.
"One guy spoke fairly good English, and he saved us from some pretty big risks. If he wasn't able to confirm that everyone was out of the house, we'd have had to go in," Chief Bettencourt said.
The American Red Cross sheltered the tenants in the Heritage Hotel over the weekend and offered them food and clothing vouchers. On Sunday, Ms. Souza said, she and fellow roommates scattered to the dwellings of friends and family across the Island.
Thursday's fire exposed the long-known, often overlooked reality of the housing problem for the Island's year-round Brazilian community of an estimated 2,000.
Exorbitant rates for substandard accommodations is the general rule for many in the Island's Brazilian community.
Ms. Souza said the head of the Curtis Lane household collected $12,000 each month for the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house, which has earned the nickname of "chicken shack" among those familiar with the house.
While this number is on the high end of rents paid by the Brazilian community, even the lowest projections soar beyond market rate.
Natan DaSilva, head of the household for another house owned by the Hall family, said he pays $25,000 for a nine-month period from April to December. The price, during three winter months, jumps to $5,300 per month, Mr. DaSilva said. Heating costs, shared among 13 roommates, are an additional $700 each winter month.
"I don't understand it. But we pay because it is a good location. We walk to the A&P, the post office, some to work," said Mr. DaSilva, who was an accountant in Brazil.
The smell of meat drifted from the kitchen of Mr. DaSilva's Cyprien Way house Wednesday morning - the work of Ms. Souza, who found a new haven in Mr. DaSilva's house just a block from the now destroyed Curtis Lane home.
Flies lingered near the counter tops. Linoleum buckled at the kitchen threshold, revealing a rotting wooden floorboard. Bare wires hung loosely along the wall, connecting lamps and a television to the one visible outlet in the cramped living room. A hole the size of a basketball gaped in the wall across from the toilet in the bathroom. The bathtub faucet hung loosely from the shower wall. No smoke detector was in evidence.
Mr. DaSilva was reluctant to complain. Many in the Brazilian community, he said, fear retaliation in the form of eviction of deportation.
They bide time, Ms. Souza said, knowing they will eventually return home to Brazil. This mother and grandmother has a deadline of two years, although she admits the plans may be delayed now due to the fire and her loss of $550.
The Halls' properties, which number five within Edgartown, have long been on the radar screen of town health and zoning officials.
Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole sent a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Hall in July of this year, informing them that Mr. DaSilva's Cyprien Way house appeared to be housing 14 men - in violation of town bylaws and state codes.
The Halls received a more extensive letter two years ago for another home on Oliver street. An inspection by Mr. Poole, authorized by an administrative search warrant from the Edgartown District Court, revealed 15 violations of the state's human habitation sanitary code. Lack of heat in the bedrooms, exposed electrical wall boxes, doors that did not properly close, no smoke detectors and Asian bed bugs were among the violations cited by the health agent.
Enforcement, said Mr. Poole, is a nightmare for town officials. Legal obstacles prevent officials from barging into the property without permission.
"We're not really in the business of knocking on doors and asking people how many people live there," said Mr. Poole. "Rather than show up with a cop and a night stick, I'd rather educate them on what their rights are," he added.
According to state statutes, health agents and building inspectors may enter a property only by invitation of the tenants or a search warrant.
"In order for the town to respond, tenants need to be involved in the process. The regulations are there to protect them," Mr. Poole said.
Tenants, however, are reluctant to open the door for town officials. Some town officials suspect they've been coached by landlords to resist inspection. Mr. DaSilva admits that many Brazilians fear they will be asked to show proof of residency.
Aggressive enforcement of state codes and of the town bylaw which prohibits four or more unrelated people from living under one roof presents a manpower issue for the town.
"Edgartown must decide whether we are willing to do something about it or ignore it, decide whether or not they are willing to step up to the plate and commit the resources," Mr. Poole said.
The Hall family challenged enforcement of the boarding house regulations 12 years ago. The court ruled in favor of the town, mandating the Halls stop operating rental properties as boarding houses.
State laws, commonly referred to as "slumlord regulations," allow tenants to withhold rent money when a landlord does not address the violations. Landlords are prohibited from evicting the tenant once he lodges complaints with local authorities and the court. If a dilapidated house is condemned, the town and the state bear financial obligation in relocating the displaced tenants.
Condemnation, Mr. Poole said, is a last resort.
The Hall family this week denied neglecting its properties and responsibility for creating overcrowded living conditions.
"I'm the victim. There's no question about it," Mrs. Hall said.
Mrs. Hall - who said she receives only $15,000 a year for the Curtis Lane house - said she was completely unaware that 14 people were living in the now-destroyed house. But a three-month lease for a Schoolhouse Road house owned by the Halls demanded $25,000 - to be paid in advance.
In the Curtis Lane instance, Mrs. Hall maintained that the head of the household, Umbeldo Miller, more than likely pocketed the difference between what he charged fellow tenants and what he paid to her.
"I feel bad that these people think this is the land of opportunity and that one of their own takes advantage of them. And they blame me," Mrs. Hall said, admitting that she and her husband have not monitored the properties regularly this summer due to health problems.
Mrs. Hall also denied the state of disrepair noted in a series of letters from the board of health office.
"The houses are in a condition that I would feel comfortable living in," she said.
While officials and the Halls wrangle over the state of the family's rental properties, Ms. Souza and her fellow Curtis Way neighbors try to rebuild their lives.
In a small black satchel, Ms. Souza collects items that she's managed to gather since Thursday's fire. A Portuguese Bible - compliments of her pastor - pictures of the Curtis Lane fire and a Red Cross voucher for clothes from the Thrift Shop are all she owns.
The fire has shaken the Brazilian community this week. Those who work closely with Brazilians living on the Island hope that the incident opens the door for the community to demand an end to their exploitation.
"They pay exorbitant rent, but they clean our houses, take care of our children and bag our groceries. They are the backbone of this community," said Jeanne Burke, director of the Island's adult learning program, which offers English lessons to many Brazilians.
"They come here because they are desperate, and now they are living in more deplorable conditions than they ever would in Brazil," she added.