‘They can break in wherever they want’: U-District business owners say arson was ‘expected’

SEATTLE — Seattle police and fire investigators are searching for a known arson suspect who they believe intentionally started a fire which destroyed an abandoned housing complex in the 5200 block of University Way NE.

The same man is suspected of assaulting a woman before the fire started. Both were illegally trespassing in the abandoned building and may have been among many squatting inside, according to Seattle Fire and SPD sources. It took more than 90 firefighters to control the damage, according to a Seattle Fire department spokesman.

Squatting, burglary and property crimes have soared in the area, according to neighbors and nearby business owners.

“When we tried to conduct a primary search of the building and the roof was starting to collapse,” according to Seattle Fire spokesman David Cuerpo. “And at this point, 90% of the building has collapsed, so we “had to abort the primary search.”

Spreading fire was biggest fear for neighboring business owners. The building was surrounded by other abandoned buildings. More boarded-up buildings line the street a block away. Neighbors say they too, have been the targets for squatters and people setting fires.

“It could have spread from one building to another like a bad rumor,” said Haitham Almaamar, owner of Nathan’s Barbershop across the street.

Almaamar said general crime has spiked here since early June when a nearby unauthorized homeless encampment on Ravenna Ave. was swept by the city after a murder and 70 separate police incidents.

“Now they have no place to stay so they can break in wherever they want,” said Almaamar. “They broke into my barbershop a couple of times. When you have nothing to lose, no matter what you do, you’re not losing anything.”

Haitham believes there will be more fires like this set by squatters. He says there are other unsolved arson cases nearby.

“This is all related to mental illness,” he said. “I work on the Ave, and I’ve been here for five years and it’s been the worst year I’ve ever seen it.This happened before and it’s going to happen again. People who actually try to make an honest business to raise their family to support their kids, who are actually trying to live every day peacefully, we’re the ones that are suffering from this whole thing.”