Criminal charges will not be filed against the owner of a former veterans boarding house in East Palo Alto, despite numerous building code violations that forced nearly a dozen residents to escape from second-story windows when the home burned down on Valentine's Day.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District and the East Palo Alto building and planning departments conducted an investigation into the two-alarm fire.
"What happened should not have happened," Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. "When you have reports of people jumping out of a building, it's not a good day."
The fire started in the kitchen of a two-story home at 1208 Bay Road at about 4:40 p.m. on Feb. 14, Schapelhouman said. The home is privately owned but was being rented by the Menlo Park-based nonprofit Homeless Veterans Emergency Housing Facility, or HVEHF, which provides transitional housing and a gateway to services for homeless veterans on the Peninsula. There were 14 veterans living at the property at the time. The organization maintains more than 150 beds at its headquarters on the VA campus in Menlo Park and at other rented properties in San Mateo County.
The fire started when one of the residents went to boil eggs and mistakenly ignited a stovetop burner under a pot of oil, Schapelhouman said.
"The fire got big pretty quick," he said.
Flames spread through the first floor of the house, trapping more than a half dozen veterans upstairs, according to one resident who did not want to be named. He said smoke and flames blocked the stairway, which was the only exit from the second floor.
"I almost died up there," he said.
At least one smoke detector went off, but there was no way for the men to get out and there was no sprinkler system to suppress the flames, Schapelhouman said. The men were forced to escape by crawling out of second-floor windows. At least one man jumped to the ground below. Others helped each other out by scrambling down a ladder propped up against the side of the house.
Miraculously, Schapelhouman said, no one was seriously hurt or killed in the fire. The veterans who had been living there were moved to the HVEHF facility on the VA campus. Their belongings were destroyed and they have not received compensation, one veteran said. The investigation into the fire revealed several building code violations, Schapelhouman said.
"Any time you have a home that has over six adults, it becomes a boarding facility," Schapelhouman said. "We had up to 15 people living at that house. Why wasn't there secondary egress from the second floor?"
East Palo Alto Chief Building Official Frank Rainone said the boarding house should have had a sprinkler system, a wider central stairway, an axe, fire extinguisher and tools to help with an emergency exit, and a secondary upstairs exit that could be used in case of an emergency. The house was not inspected as a boarding facility until after it was destroyed, Schapelhouman said.
Part of the problem, according to the fire chief, was that the owner of the home, Zhang Jianguo, allegedly misrepresented the purpose of the building in the city's records.
"He said in the paperwork he was going to use it for his own personal occupancy," Schapelhouman said.
Zhang did not return a call for comment. San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said it would be up to the city attorney of East Palo Alto to file criminal charges against the owner with respect to building code violations. The city attorney's office has indicated that it will not pursue criminal charges.
There is still the possibility of civil action related to the fire. Bobbi Rosenthal, VA Northern California homeless coordinator, said the responsibility for overseeing housing facilities maintained by the VA's nonprofit partners is up to the nonprofits themselves.
"The VA is not in the housing business," Rosenthal said. "It's my understanding that that property was not VA property."
VA Northern California spokeswoman Kerri Childress said that even with recent improvements in the VA's capacity to accommodate homeless vets, nonprofit shelters are essential.
"Although we've really beefed up our program in the last year or two, there's still no way that we could provide all the needed housing without the nonprofits," Childress said.
In 11 years, the boarding facility run by HVEHF on the VA's Menlo Park campus has helped more than 7,000 homeless vets gain access to housing, substance abuse programs and vocational training, HVEHF chief executive officer Irvin Goodwin said. Veterans currently housed at that facility range from a 24-year-old soldier who served in Afghanistan to a 95-year-old veteran who was a prisoner of war during World War II, Goodwin said.
The properties rented by HVEHF that are not on the VA campus are used for transitioning homeless vets back into the community and are not affiliated with the VA, Goodwin said. Goodwin said that he told the owner of 1208 Bay Road that he intended to rent the home on behalf of a group of veterans. Zhang allegedly told him that the house had formerly been rented as a boarding facility for mental health patients and was code-compliant.
"The homeowner told me everything was current and legal and the house was up to code," Goodwin said. "Why shouldn't I believe him?"
Since the Valentine's Day fire, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District helped inspect two other properties rented by HVEHF and found no violations, Schapelhouman said. The fire chief said he applauds HVEHF for stepping in to help veterans but thinks there's a regulatory aspect of the veterans housing process that's missing.
"I compliment them for what they're doing, but they didn't ask enough questions," Schapelhouman said. "I think our vets deserve better than that."