PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A house on Young Avenue that caught fire last week, resulting in the death of a veteran, had been the subject of multiple complaints to the city regarding trash, rats and hoarding, Target 12 has learned.
Fire officials on the scene of the afternoon fire on Nov. 5 said hoarding conditions in the home made it hard for firefighters to both extinguish the flames and to get to the victim, 66-year-old Ernest Cartwright, who was found on the second floor.
“Those conditions made it very difficult,” Deputy Assistant Chief Kevin Jutras said the day of the fire, describing the second floor of the home as having just “single-person width” aisles between piles of debris.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, according to Acting Fire Chief Steven Paré.
“With hoarding, it makes it difficult for us to access the rooms and make our way in,” Paré said. “Plus most of the stuff that is hoarded and kept is flammable, so during a fire you have a lot of combustibles.”
The condition of the single-family home, which Cartwright rented for roughly nine years, has been the subject of numerous complaints and citations over the years, including a call to City Hall as recently as two weeks before the fire, according to records obtained by Target 12.
“That should’ve never happened,” said Sonia Cintron, who lives across the street. “He was a human being and he fought for this country. He should’ve never died like that.”
Cartwright is described in his obituary as a marine veteran and a 1973 graduate of Hope High School.
Cintron was one of the neighbors who tried to alert city officials in September to what she believes was the unsafe condition of the home, going back years.
“It’s been in horrible condition since day one I moved in here,” said Cintron, who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years. “There are rodents coming from the house all day, in and out. …You can’t see through the inside because everything was piled up with all the stuff he had. Really, you couldn’t see through the windows.”
Cintron decided in September to try and contact the city about the property, and asked her friend Iasha Hall for help on how to navigate City Hall. (Hall, a community activist, has previously run for office and served on a city board.)
Hall reached out to the City Council office, and received a call back from Councilwoman Kat Kerwin, who represents that area of the city. She spoke to both Hall and Cintron about the situation.
On Sept. 21, Kerwin wrote an email to council staffers asked them to forward the complaint to the Department of Inspection and Standards, which responds to complaints about possible health, safety and sanitation issues at residential properties.
“There is an individual who is a hoarder,” Kerwin wrote. “Could you ask inspections and standards to go over there and cite them?” She also asked for the Department of Public Works to bring over rat traps and new trash cans.
The message never made it over to the Department of Inspection and Standards (DIS), according to city spokesperson Theresa Agonia. She said the department never received a complaint and has not inspected the Young Avenue home in recent years, but would have inspected it had they received word about hoarding conditions.
In a statement, City Council Spokesperson Chris Hunter acknowledged that the council staff had not sent Cintron’s complaint through the proper channels.
“City policy is that property inspection and related constituent complaints should be handled through the Center for City Services’ 311 process,” Hunter said in a statement. “This did not occur with this constituent complaint.”
“The Council office is now reviewing procedures to ensure that 311 is used consistently in response to all constituent complaints,” Hunter continued.
Kerwin declined an interview.
“That’s very upsetting and disturbing,” Cintron said. “Maybe they could’ve done something to avoid this incident.”
She said prior to firefighters arriving on the scene last Friday, two neighbors on the block tried to run into the house to search for Cartwright.
“It was too cluttered,” she said. “They tried.”
A history of problems
There were several complaints from neighbors about 5 Young Avenue that did make it through to the 311 system, according to the records reviewed by Target 12.
On June 28 of this year, a complaint submitted through the city’s 311 system reported there was a “neighbor collecting trash and it’s attracting rats.”
The complaint was assigned to the Department of Public Works, which can only inspect the outside of properties, unlike the building inspectors at DIS that go inside.
A DPW environmental specialist, Anthony Sorafine, visited the property and reported on June 29 he had sent a letter to property owner David Peck telling him his property violated city codes for littering and “sanitary lawn maintenance,” and instructed him to clean up the yard.
Sorafine returned on July 12 to find the yard in the same condition, according to the 311 notes, and issued a $100 citation to Peck. After no payment or improvement in the property’s outdoor condition, the fine increased to $200 and then $300 in August, the maximum penalty.
“Are they going to do anything about it rats still running around,” the resident, whose name is redacted, wrote again in the 311 app on Aug. 4.
“I got no response from owner so property was cited,” Sorafine wrote. “I will keep citing until something is done.”
On Oct. 20 another call came into the Center for City Services, the office that takes 311 calls.
“Hi Anthony a constituent call stating that the trash is still there and that it has accumulated even more,” the 311 staffer wrote. “Which is causing issues with the neighbors, is there anything we can do? Please advise, thank you.”
“It has been cited many times,” Sorafine wrote.
None of the complaints in the 311 system specifically mentioned hoarding, which had been described in the complaint from Cintron that never made it over to building inspectors.
Hall and Cintron contend there should have been an inspection of the inside of the home, not just the outside of the home that DPW workers were visiting.
“It never reached the proper people,” Hall said. “We tried to make a complaint that was a safety matter.”
Multiple other neighbors told Target 12 this week the property had long been a nuisance, and of concern to most who live on the one-block street that stretches between Smith Street and Chalkstone Avenue.
Agonia said prior to this year, the most recent citation issued to Peck about the property was in 2016.
Reached by phone, David Peck said he had worked with his tenant over the years to clean up the home, while also trying respect that Cartwright did not consider his accumulation of possessions to be hoarding. Cartwright had lived there since 2012.
“He was a really nice guy, and anytime there was ever an issue with the city we would work with him to correct it,” Peck said. “It’s very, very unfortunate.”
“That was his treasure,” Peck added of the collected items, described by others as trash or debris. “He was very, very passionate about his independence, his creativity and his possessions.” He never sought to evict Cartwright.
Peck acknowledged there had a prior citation from the city about the house, but said he did not receive the most recent letter or citations this year. The city said the citations were sent to his home and left at the property.
The listed address for Peck in the Providence tax rolls is on Bayberry Lane in Barrington, but Peck said he no longer lives there.
“We’re just devastated,” Peck added. “It’s very sad and tragic.”
Cintron said while Cartwright may have been hoarding, she blames city officials for not acting to help him get out of potentially unsafe housing.
“He wasn’t well,” she said. “I would like to see them take better care of the veterans. … He was a human being.”
Sarah Guernelli contributed to this report.