First Hill Fire Displaces Dozens of Very Low-Income Tenants, Shutters Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge

Image via Yelp

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of very low-income residents of a subsidized apartment building on First Hill, the Madison Apartments, have been displaced, possibly permanently, by a massive fire that broke out last Sunday night. The five-alarm fire badly damaged the third and fourth stories of the four-story 1902 brick building and forced residents of all 75 studio and one-bedroom units to leave their homes.

A relatively small number of residents have been staying at a temporary shelter run by the Red Cross at Garfield Community Center; the city had no information about where the rest of the residents, who are considered homeless until and unless they find new permanent housing, have gone.

According to Office of Housing (OH) spokeswoman Stephanie Velasco, 38 apartments on the top two floors of the building “sustained fire damage and are uninhabitable. …OH is working with the Seattle Housing Authority to identify new permanent housing options for residents of the third and fourth floors, as they will be unable to re-occupy those units in the near term.” At the moment, no one is supposed to return to their apartments (although some may be doing so against the advice of the city and building management).

Although Velasco said the “current target for [basement, first-, and second-floor] residents to re-occupy some parts of the building is early July,” that could be optimistic. Because of the building’s age, the fire may have exposed asbestos insulation, contaminating apartments with the airborne carcinogen. We’ve asked the city for more information about contamination from asbestos and other hazards.

Units at the Madison Apartments are subsidized through a number of programs, including federal Housing Choice (AKA) Section 8) vouchers, and are restricted to people making less than half the Seattle area median income, or around $45,000 for a single person.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Housing Authority, Kerry Coughlin, said SHA is helping displaced residents with Housing Choice vouchers holders to find new apartments through an expedited process.  However, Coughlin added, “That process is all we can ‘expedite.’ We can’t issue new vouchers to residents at the Madison building. If and when we can issue new general purpose vouchers (not restricted to special populations), we draw in order from our wait list.”

In Seattle, rent-restricted and affordable units can be extremely hard to come by; the “affordable” rent for a person making 50 percent of median ranges from $1,123 for a studio to $1,416 for a one-bedroom, including utilities, according to the Office of Housing. Meanwhile, the list to apply for Section 8 vouchers is closed due to excess demand, and people who have vouchers in hand often end up returning them because they can’t find an affordable apartment. Currently, the lottery to get on SHA’s wait list for vouchers is closed; the last time it was open, in 2015, 3,500 households were added to the list.

According to Velasco, SHA is “coordinating with American Red Cross to assist residents with Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers, with the intent to help expedite the process of voucher reissuance and relocation for residents needing relocation.” People without vouchers, or who can’t afford market-rate apartments, will have to seek shelter or temporary housing through already overburdened local nonprofits.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there. We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done… in order to reopen.”—Greg Lundgren, co-owner, Vito’s Lounge

Residents at the Madison Apartments were not required to have renters’ insurance.

On the first floor of the building, the longtime First Hill institution Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge is another temporary casualty of the fire. Co-owner Greg Lundgren said the business sustained major water damage from efforts to put out the fire and that it will probably be at least a month, if not longer, before Vito’s can reopen.

“Our electronics were fried, our hood ventilation was cooked in the fire (it runs up through the center of the building and was exposed to the fire on the fifth floor), our ceilings are water damaged and most likely need replacement, and everyday another issue is revealed,” Lundgren said. “We are also focused on our staff, the musicians that we have programmed and support, and try and get better clarity ourselves on the extent of the damage and the road back to operating.”

Vito’s first opened in 1953. It closed in 2009 after a shooting inside the restaurant. In 2010, Lundgren and his business partner, Jeff Scott, bought the bar and reopened it, leaving the interior—with its red vinyl banquettes and taxidermied back-room cougar—largely unchanged.

[I]t’s been a heavy, unfortunate week for everyone that lives and works there,” Lundgren said. “We are still assessing the damage and extent of work that needs to be done—while we did not see smoke or fire damage, there is extensive water damage, and we have a professional service cleaning, drying and addressing a long list of concerns and work that needs to happen in order to reopen.”

According to the Seattle Fire Department, the fire was “caused by an open flame that tipped over onto a mattress and ignited it. The fire spread to other combustible materials, then burned through the roof and void spaces.”

4 thoughts on “First Hill Fire Displaces Dozens of Very Low-Income Tenants, Shutters Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge”

  1. Oh, how awful for these residents who now have nowhere to live. I sincerely hope the City of Seattle will take some responsibility for helping people find housing while repairs are done to the building.

  2. not a cheetah but a cougar (hence the “cougar room”)! i believe Greg added the cougar when he took over the bar, but someone will need to confirm…

    1. god damn it – my brain pictured a (the) cougar but my fingers typed cheetah. will fix

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