Urban Edge scrambles to help fire victims

(Photo by Richard Heath) A stream from a firefighting hose douses the building at 71 Westminster Ave. the day after the Oct. 17 fire.

EGLESTON SQ.—Urban Edge is still scrambling to help households displaced by a massive fire that damaged 24 units of affordable housing at Wardman Road and Westminster Avenue on Oct. 17.

“It’s not easy. No one plans for this,” said Chrystal Kornegay, the president of the Jackson Square-based affordable housing non-profit.

A visiting Medford man allegedly caused a gas explosion in a fit of rage in one of the units, setting fire to conjoined buildings at 71 Westminster and 3, 7 and 9 Wardman on the Roxbury side of Egleston Square. Residents of 12 of the units are still displaced and are living in a hotel while Urban Edge attempts to find housing during repairs that will take many months.

The burned units are part of a giant block of 88 apartments that Urban Edge bought 10 years ago to ensure affordability in the so-called Five W’s neighborhood of Wardman, Westminster, Waldren Road, Walnut Park and Walnut Avenue.

The apartments are subsidized with project-based federal Section 8 funds. That means that displaced residents cannot use the subsidy anywhere else, which is a “big challenge” in finding temporary housing for them, Kornegay said. Urban Edge is working with the City of Boston and federal housing authorities on solutions.

Richard Heath, a Jamaica Plain resident and retired community organizer, was hired by Urban Edge in 2001 to organize the buildings’ tenants. He said in an email that Urban Edge’s response to the fire “shows the difference a social housing organization makes in a community.”

Urban Edge has more organizing resources—and more information about its tenants—than most private landlords would, making help for displaced residents better, Heath said.

“We’re going to be in this together for the long haul,” said Kornegay, whose first work with Urban Edge was on the building. “While we don’t have a legal obligation to do certain things [to help the residents], we have a moral obligation.”

But the help is also a strain on the non-profit. Urban Edge spent millions to buy the buildings and then rehab them without displacing any tenants, Heath said. And just recently, Urban Edge spent another million dollars retrofitting the apartments with energy efficiency technology, including rooftop solar panels, Kornegay said.

Urban Edge has established the Wardman Emergency Fire Relief Fund to assist residents who lost everything in the blaze. For more information, call 617-989-9300 or see urbanedge.org.

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