ELKHART — An Elkhart woman whose house burned in June claims her insurance company is being slow to compensate her and clean up the property because the house was in a black neighborhood.
“I feel like, if they would have torn a house down in a white neighborhood, they would have cleaned it up that day,” Michele Evans said.
But since her house was torn down in early August, the debris has been left on site. She said it creates a potential hazard, especially for children in the neighborhood.
“They could step on one of the nails,” she said. “They could be over there playing and hurt themselves. I want that cleaned up, and I want the insurance company to be exposed and do right.”
A report from the Elkhart Fire Department shows that the cause of the June 15 fire at 1021 W. Garfield Ave. has been ruled undetermined. Firefighters were called to the house at 3:25 a.m. and found smoke and fire coming from the basement.
The fire spread to 1019 W. Garfield Ave., which still stands but sustained damage.
Bystanders told firefighters that Evans was out of town. Her neighbors were able to self-evacuate, and no one was injured, according to the Fire Department.
The months since have been a nightmare, Evans said. Once the cause of a fire is ruled undetermined, the insurance company is supposed to pay the claim, she said.
“They haven’t denied my claim, but they’ve done everything – they’ve probed my life,” she said.
She has had to speak with an attorney, give up her phone record, have background and vehicle history checks, release information of her bank accounts and speak under oath with an investigator, she said.
“They already know that I wasn’t there, because I was out of town. But they’re taking me through too much,” Evans said.
Still, her biggest concern is that the company, Erie Insurance, has left the debris for almost two months without fencing it.
“I feel like, because it’s an African-American neighborhood, they don’t care,” she said.
Erie Insurance would not comment on a specific claim or customer.
For Evans, how she has been treated feels worse because she has lived in the house for 20 years and never missed paying a bill, she said.
“I’m still paying my mortgage payment,” she said. “I have to make another mortgage payment, and I will make it, along with putting the deposit down on a new house.”
She said was informed on Thursday, Sept. 23, that by Thursday, Oct. 3, she would have to be out of the hotel where the insurance company has been putting her up. She was then asked to move to a worse hotel, she said. When Evans balked, she was first offered $2,500 per month to find a place to live but was then told she couldn’t get that money until the case is completed, she said.
Evans has now decided to take matters into her own hands and speak with a demolition company. David Jackson of Jackson Demolition has agreed to take on the job of removing the debris.
He said the insurance company’s behavior is highly unusual.
“It’s unheard of,” he said. “Any demo jobs that we do, you start and you finish.”
Jackson argued that there should be a liability concern for the insurance company, in case somebody does get hurt on the property.
“It is a hazard, as far as young people. And it just looks bad, too, for the community,” Jackson said.
He was frustrated with how the demolition was done.
“They filled the basement with dirt and everything. We try to recycle as much concrete as we can when we’re doing a demo site, so we have to clean everything out and try to save the bricks, those concrete bricks. But when you put everything in a hole it just makes the job much messier,” he said.
The demolition company needs to get permission to finish the job through the city and make sure all gas and water has been shut off properly. Jackson said that process, and the fact that the company just began demolishing a downtown Elkhart property, means he cannot begin the job for a few weeks.
Jackson said he would probably put a fence around the property until the cleanup is done, just to make it safe. Evans and Jackson both said Erie Insurance will have to pay for the cleanup. Jackson said he will not begin the job until he knows he will get paid.
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