REDWOOD CITY -- Nicole Redman escaped unharmed from the six-alarm blaze that tore through her over 70 unit apartment building Oct. 17 but now she says tenants like her are fighting a battle to get their possessions back.

The owners of the Terrace Apartments, which include a prominent San Mateo County businessman, are not allowing residents to go into the badly damaged and possibly toxic building to get their belongings. Instead, the owners have offered to help the former residents get a couple of boxes of their electronics, jewelry and housewares out of the building.

The fire appears to be an accident, possibly started by a pot left on a stove. Four people were injured in the flames. A blaze in a similar Redwood City building left one man dead in July.

Tenants who accept the owners' offer must sign a legal release that has left some nervous. However, if tenants want to try to get the rest of their stuff, they or their insurance company must pay what could be thousands of dollars to a special fire recovery contractor.

"It's seems like to me they have control of all my possessions, and they are holding them hostage," Redman, 27, said of the owners. "They are essentially trying to trade my things for this liability release."

A message seeking comment from a building owner, William L. Butler, CEO of W.L. Butler Construction, was not immediately returned.


Advertisement

Sequoia Realty Vice President Jeff Badstubner, whose company manages the property, said the owners are trying to protect residents from potential dangers in the building and have made significant efforts to help. As workers carried tenants' items from the building, he noted the owners and their insurance company picked up that cost.

"There was no obligation to do anything we are doing," Badstubner said. "It was our goal to try and do as much as possible within the framework we were given by our consultants and just realistic expectations."

Thursday, former residents were providing workers with lists of things they wanted from their old apartments. The owners were paying for the recovery of about two moving boxes worth of items from each unit, though in some cases workers carried out more.

This arrangement was legal, but lacked sensitivity to people who had just lost their homes, said Shirley Gibson, directing attorney at Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. She noted owners or their insurance company can and do cover the cost of removing tenants' possessions after a fire.

The release, she said, is a standard one protecting the owners from legal liability if someone gets sick or hurt from an item taken from the burned building. The owners have told residents they are concerned the 1960s-era building harbors lead, asbestos or other toxins that were stirred up by the flames.

Gibson said the landlord was working with her to narrow the legal release in an effort to ease concerns it freed the company from all responsibility for fire-related costs.

"I think they are being very cautious," she said of the owners. "It understandably strikes people as insensitive."

The owners offer of help comes with a few exceptions. The crews will not remove clothing, kitchen items, bedding, medicine and furniture. Jewelry, photos and small electronics were part of the offer, Redman said. She's not sure what that means for a $2,600 ballroom dancing costume that's hanging in the closet of her former home.

"They are trying to protect themselves and I understand that," she said. "But they are not the ones who lost everything. In fact, they have everything I own."

Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.