MORENO VALLEY: Families seek reimbursement for possessions burned in fire

Eight Moreno Valley families seeking reimbursement from the owner of their apartment complex after their possessions were destroyed in a January fire received the same, unwelcome news as many other uninsured renters before them: They are likely out of luck.

Apartment owners’ policies almost never cover renters’ possessions — something many renters don’t know — an insurance industry spokesman said. And few renters have insurance, a survey showed.

In the Jan. 7 fire at the Stonegate at Towngate Apartments, flames devoured the top floor of a three-story building, and water from the firefighting effort damaged apartments on the first and second floors. Three of the 11 families had renters insurance, residents said.

A Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department report said the fire started in electrical wiring inside a ceiling. That was enough for residents without insurance, such as Jennifer Wolfe and Deborah Deckard, to seek money from the apartment owner, San Diego-based Davlyn Investments.

But Davlyn told them the company’s insurance doesn’t cover residents’ property, Deckard said. And Wolfe said her rental agreement states that Davlyn is liable for damages from a fire only if it ignited because the company was negligent.

Even so, Wolfe, Deckard and other residents who gathered Friday, March 8, outside the building’s shell said Davlyn should pay up.

“It was their fault. It was due to inadequate wiring,” Wolfe said.

“If it was started from a tenant I would concede (their point),” Deckard said.

A woman who answered the phone at Davlyn Investments and declined to provide her name said the company would not comment. A phone message left for Davlyn’s attorney, Timothy Cary, was not returned.

Stonegate at Towngate has about 550 units and was built around 2006.

 

INSURANCE ‘DISCONNECT’

Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, the public relations arm of property and casualty insurance companies, said there is a “disconnect” between what renters believe is covered and what actually is covered by apartment owners’ insurance.

“You better make sure you understand the limitations of your landlord’s policy,” Moraga said.

He said the Moreno Valley residents’ best hope to be reimbursed is to prove negligence in court — that a problem with the wiring existed and that Davlyn knew about it but did nothing to fix it.

“That’s going to be a rough one unless there’s a pattern established,” Moraga said. “This sounds like an accident, and it might be very difficult to prove negligence.”

Nationwide, 31 percent of renters have insurance, a 2012 survey by the Insurance Information Network showed. Among Hispanics, only 15 percent have renters insurance, the results said.

Renters insurance covers losses from fire or smoke, lightning, vandalism, theft, explosion, windstorm and water damage, not including floods, the Insurance Information Network said.

Renters insurance also covers liability claims from someone injured at the residence. Some apartment complexes require tenants to have personal-property insurance, Moraga said.

 

RESIDENTS IN DISTRESS

Davlyn moved the burned-out residents to vacant apartments and gave them about six weeks’ free rent. The company also provided storage units, residents said. The Red Cross provided assistance the day of the fire.

Deckard, 50, said she lost everything and that it would take more than $30,000 to replace her possessions. She is now living in an unfurnished house and sleeping on an air mattress, which Deckard said is making a back injury she suffered in a traffic accident more painful.

She had never considered getting renters insurance, Deckard said, because nothing like the fire had ever happened to her.

Gerardo Mendoza, 29, said all his possessions were destroyed, a loss he estimated at $15,000. Paying for new items, he said, has left him without enough money to pay the next month’s rent, and he is being evicted.

Wolfe, 37, estimated her loss at $10,000, including a new couch, three beds and appliances. She had to use the money she’d saved for a house down payment to buy new furniture.

“I just want to be reimbursed,” Wolfe said. “Once they moved us into apartments, it’s like they washed their hands of us.”

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