A devastating fire in a downtown Newark landmark revealed once again the severity of the housing crisis in Licking County and the kindness of a caring community.

When flames tore through the 124-year-old Avalon Building on the cold, windy Saturday morning of March 23, it forced 24 people out of 20 apartments. All residents found immediate shelter in the Licking County Library building across W. Main Street from the Avalon.

And in that space – one that is familiar to many of them because they are library patrons – they found love and support, said Laura Appleman, marketing and public relations manager for the library, who was at the library that day.

“As soon as the fire started, and people started evacuating, they walked out in whatever they had on – in some cases, flip-flops and robes,” Appleman said. “We kept our facility open for them, and for the firefighters and police officers, after our normal hours, providing them a place to get out of the cold, as well as snacks and water.”

And then, amazing things happened.

MNCHS Kitchen, a restaurant a half-block from the fire scene, closed early because street access to its storefront was closed.

“They took all of their food and donated it to the residents and their families, and to the police, firefighters and Red Cross workers,” Appleman said. “Pizza Hut then went above and beyond, too. They made us a very large order of pizzas.”

And the outpouring of support continued.

“We had random community members who stopped by and dropped off clothing,” Appleman said, because the Avalon residents had nothing. “It was a terrible event, but the community pulled together in so many ways.”

Newark Homeless Outreach is among those helping some residents with food and other needs.

Many of the Avalon residents were able to find temporary shelter with friends or relatives, said Rod Cook, executive director of the East Central Ohio Red Cross Chapter in Newark. 

A moving crew and former residents on Friday, March 29, were allowed into portions of the Avalon Building deemed safe to enter so they could remove belongings. Credit: Alan Miller

Starting Sunday, the day after the fire, Red Cross case workers contacted individual residents to work on their recovery plans.

“They assess immediate needs, such as food, shelter, and prescription drugs,” Cook said, adding that local health professionals work with the Red Cross on immediate needs such as emergency prescription refills. Mental health professionals also are available to provide support for those dealing with the trauma and grief that can come with escaping a burning building and realizing all that they have lost.

The next step is recovery support, Cook said, and the biggest challenge in that process is finding affordable housing in a market that is already so tight that it’s at a point of crisis for people at the lowest income levels.

Nearly a week after a devastating fire at the Avalon Building in downtown Newark, movers and some former residents spend Good Friday moving furniture and clothing out of apartments deemed safe to enter. Credit: Alan Miller

Because of a low supply and high demand, housing prices and rents have increased dramatically in Licking County and across central Ohio in recent years.

“We’ve been battling this for years,” he said. “The shortage of affordable housing creates big issues for us in finding places for people to relocate.”

The county experienced a similar crisis last summer when up to 60 people were forced out of a Buckeye Lake motel after a building inspector said he found health and safety issues there.

That flood of unhoused people overwhelmed local social service agencies, which scrambled to try to help those who had been displaced.

A week after the Avalon fire, many of its former residents are still staying with friends and relatives, and a few are still in motels.

“This is devastating,” said Deborah Tegtmeyer, executive director of the Licking County Coalition for Housing. “Our supply of affordable housing, particularly for seniors, is tight. This is a major disaster for the senior population. This is not what we needed. I hope that the building can be restored quickly or that new housing can be constructed there as soon as possible.”

Water continued to flow inside the Avalon Building on W. Main Street in Newark after a two-alarm fire there Saturday morning. Fire and water did significant damage to the east wall facing 5th Street, where the orange fire hose remains in the street. Credit: Alan Miller

Fire officials were skeptical about the future of the Avalon Building, saying a day after the fire that the east wall of the building was structurally unsound and potentially in danger of collapsing onto 5th Street.

Nathan Keirns, chief executive officer of LEADS, the Newark-based community action agency that owns the Avalon Building, said he and the LEADS staff are grateful that all residents escaped the building unharmed, and for the quick action of firefighters and police to help the residents and try to save the building.

Keirns, too, is concerned about the future of the Avalon Building, which his predecessor, Ken Kempton, helped save from demolition in 2004 by leading the effort to find money to restore it as housing for low-income seniors.

“We’re planning to have an engineering consultant look at it,” he said. “The clock is ticking. The city and others are monitoring it, and it’s possible the city or the fire marshal could decide it’s dangerous and it needs to come down.”

He said the building is insured, and that LEADS will “plan what we need to do to shore up the building, or build new, or do something else.”

“In the short term, we’re trying to link residents with agencies to help with food and clothing, but the longer-term solution for personal belongings (in the building) isn’t so clear.

“Our mission,” Kierns said, “is to provide those affordable rents in a world where rents keep going up and up.”

On Good Friday, a team of movers helped former Avalon residents remove furniture and belongings from portions of the building deemed safe enough to enter.

One of those former residents stood in the fading sun on Friday evening and said they had been at it since 9 a.m. She and her mother, who lived in an apartment at the west end of the building, farthest from where the fire broke out, were lucky she said. Their apartment did not suffer fire, smoke or water damage.

Others, she said, were not so fortunate.

And now, she and her mother are staying with a friend and searching for permanent housing.

“This is devastating,” she said.

Alan Miller writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers.