Tenants of a Sunset Park apartment building have been unable to return home to their Brooklyn apartments for months after a three-alarm fire tore through their homes on May 2nd. They gathered Tuesday to demand answers from their landlords who they say are too slow in repairing their apartments and have become unresponsive.
Thirty-nine Brooklyn families have been displaced from their apartments in a 40-unit rent-stabilized building located at 702 54th Street in Sunset Park since the fire, which appears to have been caused by batteries from e-bikes.
Most of the tenants in the building are Chinese-speaking or Spanish-speaking immigrants. They said the landlords, Baozhen Lin, Moshe Kraus and their management companies, 702 Plaza LLC, M&D Heritage Group LLC, have been unresponsive and uncooperative with them after the tragedy. They decided to take legal action to secure repairs and eventually return to their homes.
Jared Watson, Tenant Organizer at Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) & Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a FAC-affiliated , housing counseling and tenant advocacy organization, said nearly all the tenants are now scattered across different shelters in the city, including in Harlem and Brownsville. Some are staying with their relatives.
“There have been several fires in rent-stabilized buildings in Sunset Park over the last several years, which have contributed to the displacement of long-time low- and moderate-income tenants and exacerbated the existing affordable housing crisis in the community,” said Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of FAC & NHN.
According to the complaint, the majority of tenants have been barred from collecting their personal belongings due to partial vacant orders placed by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”) and the NYC Department of Buildings (“DOB”) in the interest of public safety. DOB records also show that the Brooklyn building has a history of violations, including three active violations directly related to the fire.
“Our top priority is the safety of our fellow New Yorkers. The Vacate Order remains in effect due to severe structural stability concerns at the fire-damaged wing of the building. The owner must make repairs to the building before anyone can be allowed back inside,” said DOB press secretary Andrew Rudansky in a statement.
According to HPD Deputy Press Secretary William Fowler, current conditions across multiple apartments in the building, including fire damage to walls, ceilings, the roof of the buildings and windows, are dangerous for the occupants of the Brooklyn building.
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Ashley Viruet, a staff attorney on the Housing Rights team at TakeRoot Justice representing the tenants, said they want to make sure the landlords repair the building as soon as possible so that the vacant orders can be lifted and the tenants can gather their belongings.
Viruet pointed out that the landlords barely communicated with the tenants and didn’t tell them what repairs would be made and when the work would start or finish.
“They [landlords] have our numbers, but they never send us any updates, not even a comforting message like ‘sorry’ or something. This is sad.” said Joanne Weng, 31, who has lived in the building for over five years.
Weng told Documented that she and her two kids, 3 and 4 years old, were sleeping when the fire broke out before 7 a.m. “When we got out of our apartment, the hallway was full of black smoke,” Weng recalled. Weng said she and her children were rushed outside with pajamas and traumatized by the fire, “my kids now always tell me to turn off the stove when I am about to finish cooking,” said Weng.
According to the complaint, in the days immediately following the fire, tenants were denied entry by owners unless they agreed to sign and have notarized an “Access Agreement” permitting owner 702 Plaza LLC to enter and change the locks of the apartments. But the owners didn’t commit to providing the tenants with keys to these new locks.
Viruet also noted that the landlord only offered the agreements in English even though most tenants do not speak English as their first language, “some tenants were not aware of what the agreements mean to them.”
Tony Zheng, 51, said he denied signing the agreement after consulting the attorney. The smoke woke Zheng after the fire broke out, and he woke up his family and knocked on his neighbors’ doors to alert them of the fire.
Zheng said he could not retrieve his belongings, and the landlord didn’t reply to his text requesting that he be able to enter the apartment. “We escaped from our apartment very quickly at that time. Many important items, including the car key, my daughter’s birth certificate and bank checks, are still in the apartment,” Zheng told Documented.
“It’s terrible. The landlord doesn’t talk with anybody and never shows up. He is like a ghost,” said Laura Alegre. Some of the tenants were unclear if Kraus or Lin was their landlord. The 71-year-old has lived in the building with her sister Adilia Alegre for 35 years, and they have to stay at their nephew’s place after the fire. “He doesn’t really respect us. He doesn’t have an idea how hard it is for everybody to have their lives changed. We don’t have a place secure to live.” said Adilia Alegre.
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“This is a crisis,” said Councilwoman Alexa Avilés, who represents Sunset Park. “What the landlord is doing is unjust. We are demanding to get access to your apartments and the repairs to be done much quicker so that you can get back to your life,” said Avilés. She vowed to work with FAC & NHN and TakeRoot Justice to help the tenants return home as soon as possible.
Rudansky pointed out that the property owners followed the DOB’s order to take immediate action to make the site safe, including installing a sidewalk shed in front of the building and sealing the damaged building. But the landlords have not complied with the order to hire a professional engineer in order to create a structural stability report for the building and come up with plans to repair the fire-damaged building.
“If the owners continue to disregard DOB orders, they may be subject to enforcement actions, including the issuance of violations and associated civil penalties,” according to Rudansky.
Matthew S. Brett, the attorney for the landlords, didn’t provide any comments by the time the article was published.