The fire — and everything that has followed — started with a discarded cigarette. At least, that’s what Bette Petricko suspects.
It was a Tuesday, June 21, and the 93-year-old was getting ready to run errands out of her longtime home in Revere Beach, on the 11th floor of an 80s-era high-rise at 370 Ocean Ave. She first saw the flames on her patio — “the wood, cracking, cracking, cracking.”
Barefoot, Petricko fled into a smoky hallway so dark she had to feel her way forward with one hand while covering her nose with the other.
Water from the fire trucks ruined her furniture and rug collection that she had built over 33 years. (In fact, the state fire marshal eventually determined the cause to be “improper disposal of smoking materials.”)
And that was just the beginning of her ordeal.
In the three weeks since the Water’s Edge Apartments caught fire, Petricko and 81 other residents have been effectively rendered homeless, forced to live off dwindling savings. The situation worsened on Wednesday, when the city of Revere condemned the building for outstanding code violations exacerbated by the fire, according to city spokesperson Jackie McLaughlin. An announcement declared the building: “Unfit for human habitation.”
Now, tenants are unsure when they can return — if ever.
The fallout has led to a dispute between the tenants, city officials, and The Carabetta Companies, a Connecticut-based landlord with a record of complaints at its buildings in Revere and Malden. So far, management has refused to distribute the $750 tenants are legally owed in relocation benefits from its insurance under Massachusetts law or provide any insurance information to tenants at all, residents and city officials said.
“There’s zero communication. Nothing,” said one resident who would only provide his first name, Mohammed, out of fear of retaliation. “It’s like we don’t even exist.”
Carabetta did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday and Friday, both to its general phone and e-mail and to a top executive. The family-owned firm has thousands of units in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including buildings in Springfield, Worcester, and Malden.
Jeff Feuer, an attorney with expertise in landlord-tenant disputes, said “it’s the law” that landlords must provide the $750 benefit and insurance information at tenants’ request. He added that the financial ramifications of the fire won’t be clear for some time, as the availability of additional insurance payments depends on who is found responsible for the fire, which could be a tenant, rather than Carabetta.
Even so, just how far the $750 would go is doubtful, considering the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Revere is $2,416, according to rental website Zumper.
In a statement, Revere Mayor Brian M. Arrigo railed against Carabetta and said the company has been issued a demand letter to get Water’s Edge up to code. He noted that since 2004, city inspectors have fined the company 70 times, and that Carabetta owes Revere more than $1 million.
“The City of Revere will not allow Carabetta to disregard their obligations to our city and their residents,” Arrigo said in his statement. “We will continue to pursue every legal option available to hold them accountable for their inaction.”
Meanwhile, the state senator representing the area, Lydia Edwards, requested the Suffolk County district attorney and state attorney general’s office investigate Carabetta.
“I want this company to suffer immensely,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for three levels of law enforcement to have an effective, coordinated response to housing instability, and I hope that we don’t bungle this moment.”
Many residents would say that both Carabetta and the city have already bungled the moment.
While the fight plays out in the public eye, tenants are hotel-hopping or relying on the goodwill of friends. Shortly after the fire, the Red Cross gave $515 to every family affected; some also received vouchers to Market Basket and Target. The Revere Board of Health has set up drop-in sites to provide aid.
That aid is far from enough. Mohammed, for example, used emergency funds to cover hotel rooms that costs upwards of $200 a day. Nights are long and sleepless; his 12- and 14-year-old are overcome with stress. The money won’t last forever.
“The city says they’re here to help with food, water, diapers. Are you kidding me?” he said. “We need shelter. We need a place to live.”
Petricko is also staying with a friend nearby on Ocean Ave., “like a wayward child.” She turns 94 on Monday. Her birthday present is “having no home,” she said. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t set the fire. I’m a victim, and they’re abusing me. They’ve abused every single person in that building.”
The fire itself was only on the 11th floor, but water damage from the rescue “made its way to the fourth floor,” Revere Fire Chief Christopher Bright told reporters in June. Some apartments were undamaged and retained running water and electricity, residents said.
But the consequences have affected tenants equally. Most now take issue with the city, which one week after the fire allowed them back into the building during the day, only to condemn it a few days later. Carabetta, they said, also owns other buildings nearby that have unoccupied apartments.
Residents have marched their complaints to City Hall, demanding meetings with Arrigo — often to no avail. (In his stead, city officials offered them pizza, a resident said.)
McLaughlin, the spokesperson, said Revere cannot afford to support displaced residents indefinitely.
It’s commonplace for tenants to struggle after fires because of tight housing supply, money issues, and obstacles with their landlord, said Laura Rosi, the chief executive director of the Malden-based organization Housing Families.
Residents at 370 Ocean Ave. frequently complained of rodents and maintenance problems before the fire. Those included filthy hallway carpets, leaks from ceilings, and seemingly endless elevator malfunctions that sometimes forced Petricko to climb 11 flights of stairs. Several said the landlord was slow to respond, but that the affordable rent — two-bedrooms start at $2,000 a month — for a beachside apartment, close to the T, made up for it.
Carabetta has also had issues in neighboring Malden, where the company owns three high-rise properties at 520 Main St., 99 Florence St., and 36 Dartmouth St.
Malden has fielded hundreds of complaints about Carabetta buildings, said City Councilor Ryan O’Malley. He added that at least one resident at the Main Street building was displaced last year because of a faulty fire suppression system, and tenants also had to endure a heat wave in early summer 2021 because Carabetta did not turn on the air conditioning.
Malden once condemned the parking garage at the Main Street property, according to Building Commissioner Nelson Miller, who has documented inspection violations on all three Malden properties within the last two years that he said Carabetta took too long to fix. He considers Carabetta’s ownership to be “borderline absentee.”
“There are non-stop issues,” Miller said. “Some of it’s because of age, but a good chunk of it is because of a lack of attention and maintenance.”
The company has had troubles dating to 1993, when it was penalized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for diverting millions to its corporate parent, and then later received a government loan to pay it down. More than a decade later, the federal government launched an investigation into Carabetta that ended with a FBI and IRS raid in 2011. Five years later, a subsidiary pled guilty to one count of filing a false tax return.
But O’Malley, the Malden councilor, said there’s relatively little the city can do to force a landlord’s hand on maintenance issues without hurting the people who live in the building, too.
“Cities are not prepared to deal with the fallout of huge landlords like this, except for by condemning,” he said. “It’s the only real leverage we have, but it’s terrible because now you have displaced entire families, like what happened in Revere.”