NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Standing in the middle of her kitchen, Janet Clark’s eyes welled with tears as she looked down at the four bags stuffed with some clothes, toiletries, towels, and bedding. It was all she could bring with her after she was given just 24 hours to leave her home.
“I’m an old lady,” said Clark, a 62-year-old bookkeeper who pays $725 in monthly rent for her one-bedroom condominium in North Providence. She suffered from congestive heart failure just a few months ago, and having to vacate her home in a matter of a few hours has put “significant stress” on her, she said.
Clark is one of nearly 80 residents of North Providence’s Canterbury Village who were given 24 hours notice on Monday that they would need to vacate their homes due to what town officials are calling “deplorable” and “unsafe conditions.”
“How am I supposed to pack up my life in just a few hours?” she asked. Her unit wasn’t in as poor shape as other units, she said, but she was still given an eviction notice. “It’s criminal what they’ve done to every resident here.”
The building’s property management company, Vista Management, “is pretty much doing a complete reconstruction project. They’re removing walls, ceilings, and whole hallways,” North Providence Fire Chief John Silva III told the Globe on Tuesday morning. “They cannot occupy the building with residents when there’s this kind of work being done. It’s pretty much unacceptable for anyone to live in that.”
Assistant Fire Chief John Horan told the Globe the town received an anonymous tip from a resident over the weekend who said they felt unsafe in their home due to the property’s condition. When the fire department and building inspectors visited the property on Monday, Horan said they found “ripped down ceilings” an active construction site, and “gutted apartments,” among other issues.
“My take? I wanted to shut the building down immediately,” said Horan. “But the building officials said we needed to give people more time to pack up their homes and vacate.”
“I’m totally sensitive to the fact that we’re literally throwing people on the street,” added Horan. “But the building was in total disarray, and I just want to keep these folks safe.”
On Tuesday morning, residents from more than 50 units were lugging their belongings out of their homes. Doors to many of the units were open, and residents showed a visitor the holes in the walls where water flooded into the condos. Others detailed living with constantly wet floors, water leaking in through windows, and bathtubs that have overflowed regularly for months.
Peter Botvin, 59, who works as a transmission installer, has rented a unit on the property’s first floor for about six months. He told the Globe that wet carpet in his bedroom had to be replaced months ago and dirty water bubbles up from the bathtub drain. He said his bed is “constantly damp,” and he has placed two humidifiers in the bedroom that he keeps running around-the-clock.
“My place was infested with bugs and roaches. I keep a clean place, and have done everything I could to get rid of the problems myself,” said Botvin. “But there’s mold everywhere.”
Botvin, who said he does not smoke, said the mold has made him sick with coughing and constant headaches. He said he went to the doctor recently and was referred to a lung specialist, and he has a follow-up appointment in the coming weeks.
“I’ve never had problems like this before any where I’ve lived. This is a crime to put human beings through this,” said Botvin. He told the Globe he will sleep in his van until he can figure out a new place to live.
Silva said the fire department and town officials had been unaware of the property’s state. Horan said fire department investigators have “not yet interviewed anyone” about how long the multiple construction projects at the site have been ongoing, but residents told the Globe that the construction has taken place for “more than a month.”
The town’s building inspector and fire department condemned the property on Monday. Vista Management did not immediately respond to voice messages left by the Globe on Tuesday morning.
The fire department placed the property on an around-the-clock “fire watch” to monitor for outbreaks. Residents have until 3 p.m. Tuesday to pack all of their belongings and move out.
The American Red Cross has been helping tenants find places to stay.
“They assured me everyone who does not have a place to stay will get shelter. But they don’t know for how long,” said Silva, who said Red Cross workers told him Monday night that only 50 percent of the residents have family members or others nearby with whom they can stay temporarily. “Now, that worries me personally. What happened is not their fault, and it’s not fair.”
Silva said most of the condominiums are one-bedroom units that are privately owned and then rented to mostly working-class and lower-income individuals, and some senior citizens.
“We know many don’t have the assets to find somewhere else to live quickly,” said Silva. “It’s not right where they have a home one day, and it’s ripped away from them the next.”
Resolving these kinds of issues at condominiums can be complicated for town officials, said Horan.
“We’re dealing with several parties. There’s a condo association, the owners, property management company [Vista Management], and the people who actually live there,” he said. “And I don’t know if the right hand knows what the left hand is doing right now.”
The Canterbury Village condos have had ongoing maintenance issues since earlier this year. Multiple residents told the Globe that a burst pipe caused significant damage in February, including about six inches of standing water in one of the corridors. Horan said Vista Management pulled permits to fix the damage with two different remediation companies.
Horan said officials identified several issues while inspecting the condominiums on Monday, including asbestos and an egress corridor in one of the buildings that was “severely compromised.”
Silva also said the property does not currently have a fire alarm system.
In an interview with WPRI-12, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi expressed frustration with Vista Management in their remediation efforts.
“We couldn’t get them to cooperate,” Lombardi said. “We had to take them to court, and then they agreed to hire an architect, but they still haven’t done that.”
Lombardi said the town could not “just sit back and allow this to happen.” He said the town had been forced to get residents out of the property “for their safety,” but he aimed the blame squarely at Vista Management.
“Let me be blunt,” Lombardi told the news station. “The people who were responsible for straightening this out … they should be arrested.”
Many residents said they plan to leave belongings behind in their units when they vacate, even though they don’t know when -- or if -- they will be able to return. Vista Management representatives have not yet said when work might be completed.
“It could be months. It could be a year. It could be never,” said Keith O’Brien, a 65-year-old retired bus driver, who has owned three condos in the building for the last 25 years. He rents one to Botvin, and he lives in another one.
O’Brien said he has “constantly complained”to Vista Management about issues he and his tenants have experienced. Yet many of the problems have not been dealt with, he said.
“They raised our condo association fees twice [recently],” said O’Brien. “But what are they doing with our money? I don’t see it going into remediating these blatant issues.”
“Instead, Vista Management has created a total public health hazard for everyone here,” added O’Brien.
This article has been updated with additional details and photos.