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"Why am I being punished?" Fire code may force elderly Mesa residents from care homes

Posted at 6:32 PM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-04 21:32:11-04

MESA, AZ — Is a fire code that is being enforced in Mesa keeping the elderly safe or forcing them from their homes?

It is a question that is at the center of a fierce back-and-forth between Assisted Living Homes and the City of Mesa. The entire situation, putting elderly residents on edge, as their future homes hang in the balance.

The City of Mesa says the conversation should be framed around safety.

Firefighters and city spokesperson say the city is simply following standard international fire code, which says that if one person in these Assisted Living Homes is unable to "self-preserve", or get out of a fire on their own, then the maximum number of residents that can be cared for at the home is five.

The managers of these homes though argue that they are licensed by the state for up to ten people, all of whom need a higher level of care.

"If they were independent, they wouldn’t be living here," said Kimberly Hartman, Owner and Manager of Vista Ranch Assisted Living.

The Assisted Living Homes also claim the code has not been enforced in recent decades, or by neighboring cities - something the City of Mesa disputes.

The city also says their fire department does not actively seek out these violations.

In the case of Vista Ranch, a fire marshal was doing an annual inspection when it came to his attention that one 86-year-old could not "self-preserve" and there were nine residents living in the home.

"And at that time he told me you can’t have her live here anymore," said Hartman. "It was the first I’d heard of this code... They are giving me the option of kicking her out or going down to five people."

"We're not going after these assisted living facilities," said Mesa Assistant Fire Chief James Johnson. "We're just out there to enforce the code... safety of these residents is our number one priority."

The residents themselves, although unable to get up and out of a fire on their own, say they feel safe in the facilities where they have chosen to spend their remaining years.

"I don’t want to move... Why do I have to up and move? All my stuff and my friends are here. My children all live around me," said Jerri Bowden, an 86-year-old grandmother whose spinal issues may lead to her being forced to find another home outside of Vista Ranch. "I don’t understand the rationale behind it. But I understand why I have to move."

Retired Army Major Jack Snell lives down the street at another small care facility. He has ALS. The nervous system disease is slowly deteriorating his muscles and he is bedridden.

"Do you feel safe here," asked ABC15's Zach Crenshaw."Yes. If I didn’t, I’d be a moron to still be here," Snell replied.

The manager of that facility worries Snell could be next. She has already gotten a warning from Mesa Fire, but told ABC15 she is not as far along in the process as Hartman and Bowden.

"It makes no sense," said owner Jennifer Tonna. "Being able to allow somebody to age in place will not happen now... It's a sad thing to say, when they need us the most, we have to kick them out."

"Why am I being punished?" wondered Snell, who said it was incredibly cumbersome to find a place that could accommodate his needs.

The care homes are aggressively pushing back, in part because it impacts their bottom line.

"There’s no way we could continue to pay the mortgage if I went down to five residents," said Hartman.

A lobbyist now working with the care homes argues Mesa Fire is not the only organization that has a say in this process.

"Arizona state law and the Arizona Department of Health Services provides licensing to all assisted-living homes," said healthcare lobbyist Legia Ilea-Naik, who points out that the licensing allows for ten beds to be filled with high-need residents. "I think the City of Mesa is just looking at the fire code and not recognizing the federal law for fair housing act and the state legislation."

Mesa says they will continue to enforce the code that has been around since 2003, and that it is on the owners to know what they can and cannot do.

Hartman said that on Tuesday afternoon the department was planning to issue her a formal citation that started the clock ticking on Jerri's departure, but that firefighters never came to her door.

Now, as they lobby the governor and fight behind the scenes, Hartman and Jerri anxiously wait to see what happens next. Jerri though, says she has already made up her mind.

"I don’t think it’s going to become a reality, because I am not going to move," said the 86-year-old.