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Springfield, Mass., Church Housing Peruvian Woman Passes Minimum Inspection Standards

City officials said Thursday a Springfield, Massachusetts, church has passed an inspection for “minimum life safety and sanitary requirements.” A Peruvian woman facing deportation has been living there with her two American-born children. 

Since Gisella Collazo moved into South Congregational Church more than a week ago, Mayor Domenic Sarno -- who's said Springfield is not a sanctuary city – had pushed to inspect the building for housing violations.

Church officials managed to stop the inspection until now.

Late Wednesday, Sarno announced that a Massachusetts housing court judge issued a warrant to enter the church. It's based on probable cause that an inspection to enforce "minimum physical standards" for housing should take place.

City fire and code officials had clearance do so before noon on Thursday.

The city’s building commissioner, Steve Desilets, and fire lieutenant, Richard Martin, inspected the living space in the church. In addition to finding it meets minimum requirements, Desilets said he found what he called “minor violations” that can be “quickly fixed.” He told the mayor the city will the inspect the space again in seven days.

His message to Sarno is below:

At 9:00 a.m. this morning I performed an inspection along with lieutenant Richard Martin from the Springfield Fire Marshall's Office of the dwelling unit being used to temporally house a family at the South Congregational Church. Our inspection was performed today to establish whether or not the area being utilized to house the family was an existing use and meets all the minimum requirements of the Building, Fire, and Sanitary Codes for the family now being housed.
The inspection found that the area being used appears to be an old existing housing unit utilized by the church, containing a full kitchen, bathroom with shower, sinks and toilet, two bedrooms and common living area. The attorney representing the church agreed to send a letter to me stating this use for a single family unit will not be increased to except any more families or occupants with the understanding that would than constitute a possible change of the accessory grandfathered use R4 to an R2 full Shelter use. The attorney also agreed to send me historical documentation of the existing dwelling unit and its use for our records.
The unit did pass the inspection for the minimum life safety and sanitary requirements, except for some minor violations the can be quickly fixed, missing window crank hardware, window stuck closed, non code compliant locking device on egress door, blocked egress door by a table,
The Building Department will send a violation notice to the church for the violations found and will reinspect for compliance in 7 days.

City Solicitor Ed Pikula told NEPR that the city's intent to inspect was unrelated to Collazo's sanctuary status there.

"The City has no intention to interfere with anyone's sincerely held religious beliefs," Pikula said in an email. The code standards that were the subject of the inspection are neutral and generally applicable to church and non-church entities. The inspection was motivated by health and safety concerns."

Pikula cited a recent fire in Springfield that killed two children and their father.

"[It] should serve as a reminder to everyone of our obligations to remain vigilant to protect our residents," he said. 

Last year, church pastor Reverend Tom Gerstenlauer asked the city about opening a residential shelter in the church. After a meeting, Desilets sent Gerstenlauer a letter listing extensive safety and health requirements should that change take place.

“It is my understanding based upon our conversation that you are not currently housing anyone and that you will not do so unless and until the property is in compliance with all applicable laws, statues, code and ordinances," Desilets wrote in June 2017.

Gerstenlauer said the letter was helpful, and that the church did not make any changes following the city's letter. He added that as a church, providing sanctuary is part of its mission.

Heather Brandon contributed reporting.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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