Sunset Park

Tenants ousted by Brooklyn blaze fight for answers and action

September 9, 2019 Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Sept. 9 by THE CITY.

On the afternoon of April 3, an unattended candle ignited an inferno that devastated a Brooklyn apartment building — leaving scores of displaced residents scrambling to reconstruct their homes and lives.

Pushing against 30 to 40 mph winds, it took more than 100 firefighters more than a day to put out the Sunset Park blaze. The three top stories collapsed and the rest sustained significant water damage. Four civilians and 23 firefighters were injured.

City inspectors promptly declared the six-story building uninhabitable.

“I thank God that no one died, no one passed away,” Ivette Dávila-Richards, who lived on the third floor of the building, told THE CITY in Spanish before switching to English. “The experience showed me that life is fleeting and you have to live life purposefully.”

But Dávila-Richards, a freelance multimedia journalist, is still waiting for answers on the future of her home of 41 years.

Meanwhile, the charred structure, diagonally across from the park that gives the neighborhood its name, sits battered and exposed to the elements.

Legal battle underway

In a sense, the 54-unit apartment building at 702 44th St. functioned as two buildings.

Fifteen apartments, among them Dávila-Richards’, were rent-stabilized, all occupied by longtime residents. The rest had been converted into condominiums starting a decade ago, with some going for as much as $800,000.

In July, Dávila-Richards and nine other rent-stabilized tenants sued the condominium corporation and the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development in Housing Court, demanding the building be restored and that the owners pay to relocate tenants. Last month, HPD filed its own case to press for repairs.

The tenants are waiting to hear whether they will ever be able to return. Each has been paying $1 a month to retain their claim on their rent-regulated apartments.

The condo board has signaled its hopes to rebuild — but hasn’t made any commitments. A May 31 letter from the board to owners stated: “Our ultimate goal is to do the best we can with limited resources to rebuild our building and your homes.”

The condo corporation’s general counsel, Theresa Racht, told THE CITY the owners weren’t able to comment on a possible restoration of the building “this soon after the devastating fire.”

“It is a complex, time-consuming process with many legal, insurance, and construction issues … to address,” she said in a statement. “Just consider how long it takes to gut renovate an entire multiple dwelling.”

Local advocates say the displaced tenants need answers they’re not getting.

“A couple things should have happened by now. We want to know if the insurance company released money for the repairs, for example,” said Marcela Mitaynes, an organizer at the nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors, who helped the tenants find legal assistance. “They’re essentially suing for the right to know what’s going on.”

A community comes together

Survivors and their neighbors say the community reaction to the fire was swift and overwhelming. That’s in keeping with the small-town feel of the diverse, immigrant-heavy neighborhood — home to many people with origins in China, Mexico and Central America.

Local restaurants offered free food for tenants for a week, and groups organized fundraisers and raffles. The Church of the Redeemer on 48th Street held clothes drives.

A GoFundMe campaign set up by the Sunset Park Business Improvement District garnered more than $130,000 from 17,000 donors, including high-profile organizations like Industry City, NYU Langone and the Brooklyn Nets.

David Estrada, the Sunset Park BID executive director, said that each household has received $2,600 so far.

“I was blown away by the response,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about how long the recovery will take. “No one is going to be living there in the next couple of years.”

‘Tired of waiting’

It’s possible, though unlikely, the condo owners could decide to raze the building and start anew — casting the former rent-stabilized tenants into a pricey Brooklyn housing market, potentially without protection.

“The fire itself was traumatic enough, as many tenants lost their belongings and some even their pets, but to also lose their lifelong homes would be even more devastating,” said Michael Watson, a Legal Services attorney who is representing the tenants.

The owners would have to obtain permission from the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal to raze and reconstruct the building, Watson noted. If approved, they would have to provide alternative housing or compensate the tenants for the loss of their apartments.

In the meantime, owners and tenants alike have remained cast out from the place they called home. Some have moved to other states or returned to their home countries. Others are in temporary rentals and at least four tenants are still living in homeless shelters, Mitaynes said.

Dávila-Richards spent a month and a half couch surfing, then briefly lived in a shelter, and has now moved into another apartment in the neighborhood with her daughter and sister. But she wants to return to the home where she was raised and raised her daughter.

“They’re not giving anyone answers,” she said.

“These long-term tenants have been homeless for nearly five months now with no concrete evidence that the landlord is working to make repairs or fix the building,” said Watson. “Frankly, these tenants are tired of waiting.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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