SOUTH COVENTRY — One month to the day after the Ashwood Apartments in North Coventry were destroyed by a massive fire, many of the 100 people made homeless by the blaze gathered in a church picnic ground in Pughtown for a break, and some help.
“We just wanted them to have a break, get some fresh air and see each other,” said the Rev. Josh Park, pastor of BranchLife Church on Pughtown Road, which organized the event.
The church has been assisting those displaced, 50 families, about 100 people, who lived in the 45 apartments once contained in the three-story brick building on Worth Avenue in North Coventry.
Of those 50 families, only about 13 have found new permanent housing, Park said. “I’m told that’s pretty good and that it usually takes 45 to 60 days, but we won’t rest until they all have homes.”
It’s been a joint effort, with assisting agencies ranging from the Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, Chester Housing Authority, Owen J. Roberts School District and more.
Local businesses have lent a hand (Pottstown’s own Grumpy’s Handcarved Sandwiches and Beverly’s Pastries provided the food for Sunday’s picnic and Costco donated a bed) with donations and services.
Many of those donations arrived early Sunday morning after the call went out seeking goods and an article appeared in Saturday’s Mercury. In addition to having a chance at winning donated prizes needed for a new home, every family left Sunday’s picnic with a packet of donated gift cards.
Even the entertainment, by Moon Dawgs, was donated, as were the inflatable slide and bounce house set up for the kids.
“All I can say is at a time when the country is so divided, how heartening it is to see the community come together to help,” Park said.
And while the help is appreciated, former Ashwood residents are still struggling to put their lives back together.
“About 75 percent of them didn’t have renters insurance,” Park said of those who had lived in one of the few places in northern Chester County with affordable rent.
“I just want my life back,” said Kim Scram, a mom with 11-year-old twin girls and a 13-year-old boy to support.
Like many of the former Ashwood residents, Scram is staying in the Staybridge Suites in Royersford.
“I had to get a two-bedroom suite because of the kids’ age and it’s $129 a night,” said Scram.
Luckily, she can still work. A home health aide, Scram’s client conveniently lived in Ashwood and is now lodging at the Staybridge.
But Scram has “bad credit” and an eviction that resulted from a bad relationship a few years ago, “and it really follows you around. I mean who in the world has good credit in these times?” she asked.
As a result, she has had landlords refuse to rent to her and her children. “I need a three or four bedroom and I can afford $1,700 to $1,800 a month,” Scram said adding, “but it’s a landlord’s market.”
While some landlords, prevented from evicting tenants due to the COVID-19 pandemic might dispute that observation, the fact remains that decent apartments at rents like those at Ashwood are hard to come by.
Maybe that’s why Bill and Eleanor said when they went to look at an apartment recently, they saw several of their former neighbors contenting for the same space.
Bill and Eleanor agreed to speak to a Mercury reporter only if he agreed to change their names. Like many who at the picnic seeking housing, there is a reluctance to share their difficulties with the world in a newspaper article.
Bill, who has been clean for 14 years, is still dogged by a criminal record dating back to his addiction. “I am not that person anymore, but I had a landlord laugh right in my face,” he said.
And the difficulties and the competition the former Ashwood residents face in the housing market may only get tougher in the next few weeks.
The Chester Housing Authority recently warned that unless the state General Assembly extends the ban on evictions, thousands more people, put out of work by pandemic health restrictions and unable to pay rent, may be flooding the already cramped, and expensive, housing market.
“We are extremely worried that these developments could result in an even greater crisis for those renters faced with continuing monetary challenges related to the COVID-19 virus,” Dale Gravett, executive director of the Housing Authority of Chester County, told MediaNews Group.
The eviction moratorium expired Monday and Gov. Tom Wolf has asked the Legislature to extend it because he claims the law prevents him from extending it once again himself.
Wolf is now proposing an extra $100 million for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and CARES Rent Relief Program. The PHFA has a program for people who need assistance. Renters can get up to $750 a month and $4,500 for six months.
The funds are first-come, first-served. Under the PHFA, landlords must agree to not evict tenants until 60 days after that final payment.
To date, the HACC has received in excess of 200 applications from renters whose inability to pay would normally result in potential eviction proceedings.
In Chester County, a payment limit of $750 per month is too low to cover most rents which results in a flat-out rejection from the majority of landlords, Gravett said.
That’s not news to Bill and Eleanor. That was the rent at Ashwood, but it’s hard to find other places in a similar price range that don’t have problems.
“We looked at a place on High Street in Pottstown, but it smelled like wet dogs, and once we saw the mouse turds, we knew we couldn’t live there,” said Bill.
They’ve looked at two apartments which were in or above garages, “and they wanted $1,000 a month,” said Eleanor.
Luckily for them, they had renters insurance and Eleanor has two jobs, so they have some breathing space.
It’s a good thing too because like all their neighbors “we lost everything.”
They may need that breathing room because the two, both 53, are looking for a place that takes pets. They had just welcomed a kitten about a week before the fire hit, and that has made the search harder.
And while Bill saved their kitten on the night of the fire, he was unable to save Jim and Evelyn Uphold’s cat Kissy.
“They often tested the alarm system there, but when it went off that night it was at an odd time,” Jim recalled. He rushed out and helped several people out of the burning building, “and then I recalled ‘oh God, the cat!'” and was able to get inside and save it.
But after he helped the Upholds get out, the police officer would not let Jim go back to get Kissy.
It’s been a rough couple of months for the Upholds.
When the fire hit, Jim Uphold had just completed chemotherapy and radiation treatment for rectal cancer. He is due for surgery to remove the tumor that remains in a few weeks.
His wife Eveyln, herself a leukemia survivor, needs kidney dialysis three times a week.
Their search for a new apartment has been difficult because it has to be on the first floor.
“We’re looking for something no more than $900 a month on the first floor, but no one is calling us back,” Jim Uphold said.
Before handing out the prizes, Park reviewed the complicated process the former tenants must go through to be assigned a caseworker to help them get new housing. “I know it gets exhausting to have to tell your story over and over again,” he told the families.
He said 15 area churches have stepped up and he will be assigning former Ashwood tenants a church that will provide volunteers to help with shopping, appointments and looking for new homes.
The Upholds said they are thankful for all the help the community has provided — it took three days to sort all the clothing donations made in the fire’s wake, said Park.
“And we appreciate being able to stay at the Staybridge,” Jim Uphold said. “But it’s not home.”
MediaNews Group staff writer Fran Maye contributed to this article.
This article first appeared as a post in The Digital Notebook blog.