Fire destroys condemned Richfield Court Apartment building, displaces 7 in Flint

The City of Flint condemned the complex more than a month ago, why were people still living there?
Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 6:39 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - (3/25/2021) - “My lungs hurt, my leg hurts. I’m more angry at whoever tried to set it than the actual fire itself,” a resident at Richfield Court Apartments said.

He detailed his daring escape as a fire tore through his Flint apartment building Thursday morning.

The man, his fiancée and two others made it out alive. Two dogs died in the fire. And the man said his cat is still missing.

The Flint Fire Department said the cause of the fire is under investigation. It is considered “suspicious.”

Dealing with the situation still, the man who spoke with ABC12 wasn’t comfortable being on camera.

But he shared his terrifying recount of what happened around 4:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

“I started to smell like burning plastic,” the man said.

So he explained he woke up his fiancée. And because he has a cast on his now-healing broken leg, she hopped up to look out their window.

And he said she immediately screamed, looking at the flames covering the outside of their building.

The man says he grabbed what he could put in his pockets and went to check their front door to try to leave.

“As soon as I opened the door, all I could see was flames,” he said. “And smoke just bellowed inside like my lungs are still hurting from it. And I slammed the door because I didn’t want a backdraft to happen.”

He helped his fiancée climb out this first floor window and then followed her out. Then, he said, they watched their upstairs neighbors - another couple - break their window and jump down. All four of them then pounded on their other neighbor’s window to wake up the third couple who has a newborn baby.

“I mean somebody tried to kill us, bottom line,” the man said. “I’m more pissed off about that than I am the actual fire. And they have a newborn baby, they have animals, we had an animal like, how are you -- how are you going to try and kill people?”

Again it’s not clear how the fire started, but Flint’s Fire Department is labeling it “suspicious.”

Firefighters arrived a little after 5 a.m. to put the fire out.

The man said all seven of them lost everything.

“My fiancée, she has stuff from her grandmothers -- both of ‘em -- that passed away; and there’s irreplaceable things in that apartment we can’t afford to lose them. We have a vehicle, that’s all we have.”

It could take some time for the fire investigators to determine what caused this fire.

The man said he did see their K9 helping with the investigation.

The City condemned the Richfield Court Apartment Complex in February. The citation included an order that everyone had to move out within 10 days. So why were three families still living there?

ABC12 requested an interview with Mayor Sheldon Neeley about this before 11 a.m. Thursday morning and was told he didn’t even have time to speak on the phone. The Director of Communications directed ABC12 to email questions, instead.

So we also reached out to one of several community partners who have been on the ground attempting to get these residents into hew housing.

“Nobody wants anybody to still be in that housing complex, right?” said United Way CEO Jamie Gaskin. “We want everybody out and into a better place for them. But folks that are hesitant, that either don’t want to move or don’t like the options are available, it’s really difficult and puts everybody in a bind.”

The United Way is one of nine community partners who have been meeting daily since February to discuss how to get tenants from both the Richfield Court and Sunset Village apartments into new housing.

It’s been more than a months-long task that Gaskin said is overwhelming them, but they’re committed.

So far, he said 73 people are in new housing. That now includes three people displaced by Thursday’s fire. 18 people are still filling out the paperwork and remain living in the condemned complexes, fearful their stuff would be stolen if they left. And, they’ve had to stop helping 13 people who do not want their services.

“This is a really difficult situation,” Gaskin shared. “I don’t think anybody has the stomach for basically going in and forcing people out, like physically having to remove them. No, nobody wants anything like that to happen and I don’t think anybody’s going to do that. So, what we’re left with is really just every day, going back and trying to re engage.”

Gaskin added they hired a security company to patrol the property 4 to 6 times a night. And Flint Police are increasing patrols in the area.

The burned building is now just added to the list of other burned out structures in the complex. Mayor Sheldon Neeley ordered several of them to be demolished. ABC12 asked the City about that and didn’t get an answer.

ABC12 also asked what’s being done to prevent further criminal activity on the property. The Mayor’s Office said it’s the property owner’s responsibility and they can take legal action to make sure it’s done. The city added  there’s a court hearing scheduled next week.

The living conditions are progressively becoming worse, too. Gaskin said that’s caused moving companies to refuse to come on the property. Instead, they’re relying on volunteers and their employees to pack up people’s things and get them out of the complex.

ABC12 has reported on issues at Richfield Court and Sunset Village for months now. The complexes are owned by the same company.

According to the City, that company owes more than $1.2 million in unpaid water bills.

A spokesperson for the property owner has told ABC12 they’re actively trying to sell the complexes, admitting they’re too difficult to manage while living out of state.

The City of Flint has said they’re planning to pursue a lawsuit against that owner to make them pay the water bill.

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