Habitat for Humanity project burns down

Three low-income families anticipated moving into the building in June.

by Kori Koch

Four months’ worth of many University students’ hard work burned to the ground March 10.

An early morning house fire destroyed a Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity construction site on the west side of St. Paul.

The middle unit of the triplex at 564 State St. was completely destroyed, and students returned last week to clean up debris left from the blaze.

As of last week, investigators had not determined how the fire began. Organizers said they have all but ruled out accidental causes because little electrical work had been completed.

Susan Haigh, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity executive director, said the fire damage was estimated at $200,000.

More could have been lost. Firewalls built between the units helped contain the fire and prevent severe damage from spreading before the blaze could be extinguished.

Although the outer units were saved, the fire weakened the structural safety of the entire building, Haigh said.

Throughout the year, University students help Habitat for Humanity build houses around the country.

“I’m thankful nobody was hurt and that the fire didn’t spread,” said Saundra Hartmann, the University’s chapter president.

Approximately 80 student volunteers have worked on the University-sponsored outer unit of the triplex since November, said Jessica Ahlemeier, the University chapter’s volunteer coordinator. Ahlemeier also helped on site with framing, nailing down flooring and putting up insulation.

“The delay is costly both emotionally and timewise,” she said.

Three low-income families planned on moving into the building in June. They will now have to wait three to six months, which is problematic, because their current apartment leases will expire before they will be able to move into the building, Haigh said.

She said student volunteers involved in the project will quickly re-energize to rebuild the triplex.

Organizers are waiting to learn the extensiveness of the fire to determine whether to rebuild.

Haigh said that she expects an assessment report early this week from a structural engineer who will determine if the triplex can be repaired. If it can’t be salvaged, the project must be fully rebuilt, Haigh said.

First-year University student Robert Mueller spent 16 hours working on the triplex this semester. He said he hopes to begin rebuilding soon for the sake of the families.

Breane Loeffler, a first-year University student, met the three immigrant families chosen to move into the triplex at the dedication ceremony.

“You could tell they were very excited and looking forward to owning their first home,” she said.

A homeowner works between 300 and 500 hours before moving into a Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity home, according to the organization’s Web site.

“The news of the fire really pulled at my heart strings. It is a devastating step backward,” Loeffler said.

Hartmann said she tries to stay optimistic about the fire.

“The fire happened for a reason, and I’m sure something good will come of it,” she said.