Sunset Park

Tenants displaced by 2018 Sunset Park fire still can’t return home

January 31, 2020 Jaime Dejesus
Sunset Park fire
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“Fight! Fight! Fight! Housing is a human right!” the former tenants of a Sunset Park apartment building chanted outside of Brooklyn Housing Court. The group gathered at the courthouse on Wednesday to remind authorities that, two years after the blaze that caused serious damage to their building, and months after the landlord was supposed to have completed the repairs, they were still displaced.

The January 2018 fire at the building at 529 56th Street caused eight families to seek temporary housing; however, the landlord signed a document promising their homes would be ready for them by Aug. 1, 2019. With the apartments still not ready, those same residents returned to the courthouse to demand answers.

TakeRoot Justice and Neighbors Helping Neighbors joined the tenants in the demonstration.

“My family got separated,” said Zulma Cruz, who lived in her apartment for 39 years prior to the fire. “I lost my personal belongings, I had unexpected financial expenses and setbacks and endured personal trauma. … My children have had to spread out to live with different family members [one in the Bronx, one in Staten Island], which created a huge separation for all of us,” she said.

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Cruz noted that her current residence is half the size of her previous home and the rent is $400 higher.

Twelve-year-old Jeses Brito was also displaced by the fire and currently lives on Staten Island. He said he wants to move home to Sunset Park as soon as possible, explaining that he and his brother Marcus have a long trip to get from Staten Island to school in Sunset Park.

“What if something happens to our family members?” he asked “It’s stressful waking up at six in the morning, and it feels like I don’t sleep. I need more rest and my parents as well. It’s a long journey, and going to school is stressful.”

Sunset Park fire
A protestor held up photos of the fire that destroyed the Sunset Park apartment building in 2018. Photo: Jaime Dejesus

“This has taken way too long,” Karen Broughton, chief of staff for Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, told this paper, adding that Ortiz “is working with the landlord, imploring him to just do the remedial work.”

Attorney Greg Baltz of TakeRoot Justice, who is representing the displaced residents, wants answers.

“It took months of fighting to get the landlord to agree to make repairs to return them to their apartments,” he said. “The landlord committed to have their apartments ready by Aug. 1, 2019. Now, six months [after the agreement] and two years after the fire, they’re still spread across the boroughs with no indication of when they’ll be back in their homes.”

He told the Eagle that he hopes the judge holds the landlord accountable for not completing the work in a timely fashion.

“It’s extremely frustrating, because in addition to being displaced from their apartments and having all of their transportation and housing costs basically doubled, there’s been very little communication on what’s going to happen,” Baltz said. “When the Aug. 1 deadline was coming up, people had to think about where their kids were going to be enrolled in school, whether or not they were going to be signing leases in the apartments they were in.”

Baltz said that the landlord has said that, “Everything that has caused delays hasn’t been their fault, and the reason for not providing updates is they think they’ve given enough.”

“This is a real struggle for all of us,” Cruz said.

By press time, the landlords’ attorneys had not responded to a request for comment.

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