The owners of the Gage Street building and other Worcester rental properties had fires, unpermitted work and more, city records show.
Neal McNamara , Patch Staff
5 Eastern Ave. was badly damaged in the May 14 fire. The foundation of the former 2 Gage St. building is in the foreground.
2 Gage St. was torn down in the weeks after the May 14 fire. All that remains is the foundation and some rubble.
WORCESTER, MA — The Worcester apartment building where four people died in a May fire had a history of health and safety code violations — including previous fires and alarms missing from areas where tenants smoked — according to documents provided by the city and former tenants.
Huanchen Li and Wendy Wang oversee four properties in Worcester, including ones along John Street, Rena Street, Eastern Avenue and Gage Street — the six-family building that a four-alarm destroyed on May 14 and has since been torn down.
Worcester code enforcement inspectors have visited each of their properties multiple times dating to 2013, which is when Li and Wang bought their first rental properties in Worcester.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Li largely declined to answer questions about the conditions at his properties. He said most of the reports of violations are untrue because tenants make complaints when they have trouble paying rent.
“When a person has any problems or a tenant doesn’t have rent … they call inspectional services,” Li said Wednesday afternoon.
Worcester officials also declined to comment directly about the violations. Worcester does not have a law requiring periodic apartment inspections, instead relying on tenants to report problems. And repeated code violations don’t necessarily trigger fines or legal action — as long as landlords fix problems, officials said.
And while Li is correct that tenants reported many problems to the city, those complaints prompted inspections that found violations. In many cases, the city sent letters to Li and Wang — sometimes delivered by constables — alerting them to make repairs. In one case, a judge intervened to make sure a repair happened.
A Gage Street tenant who survived the fire told Patch the building was in poor shape before May 14, including smoke detectors absent from a back stairway. A small fire also broke out in the building in September 2021 near where the deadly May fire likely started, records show.
But the low cost of rent in the building offered tenants shelter in a city where the cost of living has risen sharply in recent years. When a tenant who spoke to Patch first moved in years ago, she said many called 2 Gage St. "rock bottom" — a description backed up by inspection records.
Walls Going 'Soft'
According to property records, Li and Wang, who live together at a Westford address, acquired 2 Gage St. in February 2012 through an LLC. Code violations came in steadily soon after, according to documents provided by Worcester after a public records request.
In June 2013, Worcester ordered Li and Wang to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors missing from a second-floor common area. Two months later, a tenant reported poor conditions in the building.
"[N]o screens, walls are starting to get soft," the complaint said.
The complaint prompted an inspection, and a city code officer reporting finding a water-damaged floor, missing screens, evidence of cockroaches and mice, a rear exit blocked by clothes hanging lines, plus rubbish and furniture blocking common areas. It took until Nov. 13 to get fixed, records show.
Even after making repairs, tenants continued to file complaints, and enforcement officers visited the building at least a dozen times between 2013 and 2021, records show.
In February 2014, a water pipe broke on the third floor, flooding units below and leaving the building without water service. While responding to the broken pipe, a city inspector also found the building’s main sewer line leaking.
Months later in August, a ceiling in one unit collapsed during a rainstorm. Inspections after that incident found piles of rubbish, evidence of bedbugs and cockroaches and damaged electrical fixtures. In September 2014, a tenant reported they had been without water for a week, prompting the city to issue an order to fix the problem in 24 hours.
In November, Worcester sent Li and Wang a letter via a constable listing 10 health and safety violations to fix, ranging from a cracked ceiling and windows that wouldn’t close and a plaster wall exposed down to the lathe. A month later, the city sent an order commanding Li and Wang to fix four more violations, including a cockroach problem and a floor sagging around a bathtub.
After an inspection triggered by a tenant complaint in May 2015, a code enforcement officer found evidence of cockroaches and mice, piles of trash, a sagging subfloor near a bathtub, loose electrical outlets and flaking paint.
“Resident reports he has filed complaints in the past and the landlord makes temporary repairs but does not have a licensed contractor make repairs, so these reportedly regularly break again,” the complaint said.
A code enforcement officer closed the case in July after he couldn’t reach the tenant for a reinspection, records show.
“Have left four voicemails and went to property three times. Informed tenant the last message that if I did not hear back from him by the end of business 7/1 I would close the case. Tenant did not call back. This is the second time he has done this to me,” the inspector wrote in the case file.
The final complaint about 2 Gage St. came on May 14, 2021 — exactly one year before the fatal fire. A tipster alerted city inspectors about a large amount of trash piled under a porch and a person crawling in and out of a window regularly. The trash was gone by June 1, records show.
Problems At Other Properties
After buying 2 Gage St. in 2012, Li and Wang bought two more rental properties: 13 Rena St. in November 2014 and 27 John St. in February 2017, according to property records.
The Rena Street triple-decker has the fewest violations: two incidents in 2017 where city inspectors found electrical wiring, natural gas water heaters and furnaces installed without a permit.
The light green Rena Street home sits along a quiet residential street a few blocks from Lake Quinsigamond. The vinyl siding on one side of the house is warped, and a rear porch sagged worryingly when a reporter stepped on it to knock on the back door. At the front door, someone had written instructions with a Sharpie about how to use the electronic keypad lock, which was partially held in place by silicone adhesive.
The John Street home has had many more violations, records show, including a chimney that collapsed in 2018. Other inspections found piles of trash on numerous occasions, dilapidated porches and unpermitted plumbing work.
On Tuesday, yellow Worcester trash bags were piled up in front of the home, and the front door was open to the street. Above the landing on the second floor, a security camera aimed down the stairs was connected by a wire hanging from a floor above. A tenant on the second floor, however, told a reporter he was happy with his apartment.
Worcester has taken Li and Wang to Housing Court at least two times over health and safety violations. The most recent court action happened in July 2020 when a Housing Court judge ordered Li and Wang fix a dilapidated wooden walkway at their 5 Eastern Ave. property.
That problem was discovered by a city firefighter who went to 5 Eastern Ave. in March 2014 after a fire that started in a trash bag when someone left smoking materials inside, according to records. 5 Eastern is located next door to 2 Gage St., and Li and Wang also purchased it in February 2012, property records show.
In June 2017, Eversource visited the Eastern Avenue building twice to shut off natural gas service after Worcester inspectors found “illegal fixture, piping and venting installations.” That left tenants without heat, hot water and stoves. It took seven days for the illegal fixtures to be brought up to code, records show.
The Gage Street building — which shares an address with 7 Eastern Ave. — was torn down in the weeks after the May fire. All that's left now is the foundation and piles of bricks. The 5 Eastern building still stands next door, with one side burned and melted due to the fire.
On May 17, three days after the deadly fire, the city condemned 5 Eastern and ordered all tenants to leave. They can return once Li and Wang fix the siding, broken windows, and rotted floorboards and restore electrical service, the letter condemning the property says.
At the end of June, Li and Wang transferred ownership of all their Worcester properties to individual limited liability corporations, according to Worcester Registry of Deeds records. They are the sole managers of those corporations, state records show.
Black Smoke From The Ceiling
Jennifer, who asked that her name not be used because she may be involved in litigation against the property owner, was in her bedroom with her boyfriend when the May 14 fire broke out.
She heard someone in the building shout "fire," and then heard an unfamiliar alarm going off. Soon, black smoke was coming into her bedroom. In the living room, she saw smoke pouring down from the ceiling.
Jennifer recalled inhaling smoke and feeling her lungs "shrinking." The smoke was so thick, she couldn’t reach either the front or back staircases. She could see a light near a window, and so she moved toward it, jumped and fell to the sidewalk below. She was critically injured in the fall.
Although Jennifer doesn't know how the fire started, she described conditions in the Gage Street building that may have contributed to its severity.
Li, who she called Jim, advertised apartments online and offered amenities like free Wifi and Worcester trash bags to entice tenants, she said. Tenants typically got 90-day leases, which switched to month-to-month after that period, she said. In month-to-month arrangements, tenants can lose their apartment without a reason with a month's notice.
The building is located in one of Worcester’s poorest areas, with a median household income of $27,507 — about $24,000 less than the citywide median. About 91 percent of residents in the immediate neighborhood are renters, according to 2020 Census data.
Investigators and witnesses have said the fire may have started at the bottom of the back stairs . That area did not have any smoke detectors because it was where tenants smoked cigarettes, Jennifer said.
“Fire alarm received the 911 call from a tenant reporting a fire in the basement. First arriving WFD companies reported rear porches to be fully involved with exposure problems upon arrival,” the Worcester Fire Department’s narrative of the May 14 fire said.
Asked about the back stairway and porches, Li said that the area doesn’t need alarms because it’s technically outdoors.
“Nobody asked me to put alarms [there],” he said. “That’s a porch, it’s not a part of the building — it’s a porch.”
John, another former Gage Street tenant who asked that his name not be used, corroborated Jennifer’s description of conditions in the building. He moved in several years ago because it was all he could afford, but moved out within a year because he kept getting sick and missing work — which he blamed on mold in his second-floor apartment. John complained to Li, but never saw any changes, he said. Li said he’s never had a mold problem in any of his buildings.
John said the back stairway may have been a hazard. He saw clothes dryers from apartments vented into the back stairway, which he said was enclosed by boarded-up windows. He never saw any smoke detectors in the stairway, but said it was the main smoking area for tenants.
“It wasn’t an easy place to live,” he said.
Both John and Jennifer said there were smoke alarms in the apartments, but they were not connected to a central system, she said. Tenants learned to ignore smoke alarms in the Gage Street building because residents were always setting them off by accident, Jennifer said.
May wasn’t the first time Worcester firefighters visited building. In September, firefighters arrived at the 7 Eastern Ave. side of the building to find a fire between two stair treads in the back porch. Firefighters found evidence of discarded smoking materials, a narrative of the incident said.
Of the four people who died on May 14, all either lived on the third floor or were there when the fire broke out: Joseph Garchali, 47; Christopher Lozeau, 53; Vincent Page, 41; and Marcel Fontaine, 29.
John said he talked to other tenants when he lived at 2 Gage St. about what they would do if a fire broke out. He remembered someone saying that jumping out a window might be the only way to survive.
“It was pretty ridiculous, because there was no real way to escape,” he said.
Worcester May Change Apartment Laws
Worcester declined to allow Commissioner of Inspectional Services Christopher Spencer to be interviewed about the city's rental inspection system, and more specifically about Li and Wang’s properties. Patch sent a city spokesperson a list of questions in an attempt to find out why property owners with multiple health and safety violations can continue to operate rental properties.
Robert Burgess, a spokesman for acting City Manager Eric Batista, sent the following statement attributed to Spencer in return:
"Worcester's rental inspection process is driven by responding to complaints. Inspectors routinely cite violations in the course of their work and, in severe cases, can require an owner to correct a violation within 24 hours. If the violations are abated, no further action is needed, even if the violations are repeated," Spencer's statement said.
"If violations are not abated, they may go to housing court and may ultimately result in a request of a court-appointed receiver. The city also has the option to fine property owners or, in some cases, the city can step in to make the repairs and bill the property owner. If the bills are not paid, ultimately the city can put a lien on the property."
In the wake of the Gage Street fire, Spencer has asked the Worcester City Council to approve two new ordinances aimed at improving conditions in rental properties: a rental registry that would keep track of rental properties and the number of units and bedrooms inside each one; and an ordinance requiring all rental units to undergo an inspection at least once every five years. The inspection ordinance would also charge landlords who either fail or miss inspections.
“Commissioner Spencer’s proposal for a rental registry is a sound and measured solution that will allow city inspectors to inspect rental units on a regular basis and ensure that our residents are living in residential units that meet the very basic healthy, sanitary and fire safety requirements,” Worcester acting Fire Chief Martin Dyer wrote in a memo to councilors in June backing Spencer’s proposal.
The council's Economic Development Committee will discuss the ordinances at a meeting set for July 19.
Burgess deferred questions about the May 14 fire to Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr., who said that the cause remains under investigation.
“At this time, the cause and origin of the Gage Street fire is still under investigation. The investigation into the fire remains active and ongoing,” Early spokeswoman Lindsay Corcoran said on July 1.
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