Bronx tenants still locked out of their homes 18 months after the fire
Tenants say they fear landlords will launch a war of attrition, wait for tenants to give up, and go ahead and expropriate rental-regulated apartments.
At first, a fire broke out that uprooted her apartment building, killed four neighbors and left her homeless in March 2020. Then came September rainstorm which flooded the city and destroyed the basement wall where it was staying while waiting for repairs. Now, after 18 months in hotels, shelters, and family members’ apartments, Bronx nurse Onka Dunbar wants to go home with her two children.
The problem for Dunbar and eight other families displaced by the fire at 1560 Grand Concourse is that the owners have not yet completed the necessary renovations – despite a judge ordering the work to be completed by the end of August 2020.
group of tenants Legal action has been taken against the owner, 1560 GC LLC; management company, Chestnut Holdings; and Chestnut Executives, Jonathan Weiner Ben Reader, to enforce reforms and reclaim their apartments in April 2020, a month after the fire. After a year and a half, it is unclear if the owners have begun repairing the damage from roof sprinklers or removing the asbestos they said they found in the roof.
Through it all, Dunbar has continued to work as a nurse, now with Children’s Hospital Montefiore. She’s stayed in a shelter in Queens, at her sister’s home in Connecticut and with her daughter’s father in a flooded basement. She said she mostly separated from her 12-year-old son while he was living with his father in Brooklyn.
“I just want to get back to my place as fast as I can so I can give my kids a stable place and they can’t bounce from place to place,” she said. “But Chestnut Holdings has been stalling.”
Dunbar and two other tenants say they fear the landlords will wage a war of attrition, waiting for the tenants to surrender and come forward and expropriate the apartments. The landlord’s history gives them cause for concern: Viner, who owns one of the largest portfolios of stable condos for rent in the Bronx, evicted more tenants than all but six of the city’s other landlords in 2019. According to the Right to Counsel Coalition in New York City.
The Grand Concourse building contains 111 rental-regulated units, including nine damaged apartments. New York Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 Limits the amount that landlords can raise rents After an Individual Apartment Improvement (IAI) is completed, but the landlord does not need to have the tenant sign for renovations if the unit is vacant.
“I think it’s unfair,” said Mary Avery, a third-floor tenant, 69. “I’ve been there nearly 40 years, and it’s home to me.”
Avery said she stayed in Pennsylvania with her daughter for a year, missing medical appointments in the Bronx, until Chestnut agreed to temporarily rent her a fifth-floor unit in another nearby building. She said the apartment is nice, but the lifts break down a lot and the neighborhood is not safe. However, she said she is happy to be near her doctors again.
realtors agreed to a condition He states that they will not seek an IAI as long as Avery has a claim to the Grand Concourse apartment.
Chestnut and its attorneys did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In court filings, they gave various justifications for the delay.
“It would be a mistake not to point out that this fire and subsequent actions all occurred during the height of the epidemic,” they wrote In documents submitted in November. “The roof of the building melted due to the intensity of the fire. Four people lost their lives. These are not violations considering a little bit of grouting and plaster.”
They added that while assessing the damage, inspectors discovered asbestos in the ceiling. They continued, “It is very likely that the asbestos remediation will not be completed until early 2022 given that it will take approximately a month for each apartment affected, 15 in total.”
Tenants’ attorneys, from Mobilizing for Justice, say the landlord did not provide specific information to support these “gentle” assertions, or a number of other reasons for the delay raised in court.
MFJ’s supervising attorney Rochelle Watson wrote in court documents last December, that Chestnut “cited the loss of life, the fire director’s investigation, the insurance company’s investigation and the pandemic as impediments to starting reconstruction.” “However, the defendant did not provide any affidavits or documents that prove how any of these factors were related to its failure to commence work to renovate the apartments.”
The lawyers said they still did not provide specific information about the extent of asbestos. “Instead, the statement regarding the discovery of asbestos is completely uncertain and magically appears out of the blue,” Watkins wrote in December.
An engineering firm hired by Chestnut submitted an initial document titled “Asbestos Reduction Protocol” to the insurance company, describing rules for wearing protective clothing and posting signs about asbestos. This document was included in court papers, but Chestnut has not yet provided information on how much asbestos is present. The engineer, of H2M Architects + Engineers, did not return a phone call.
Despite citing the complications of the pandemic, Chestnut has placed orders for major projects on at least 31 of its buildings last year, including gut renovations in two other apartments inside the 1560 Grand Concourse, MFJ attorneys added in court papers.
“Since the commencement of court proceedings, the landlord has shown no sympathy for the plight of the tenants and there has been no urgent need to rectify conditions in the vacated apartments. As a result, many tenants believe the landlord is trying to use procrastination tactics to discourage them from returning to their homes.”
In the aftermath of a fatal fire
The A triple alarm fire started in Unit 603, on the top floor of the six-story building at 1560 Grand Concourse. The 118-unit property is located less than an apartment block from the Bronx Healthcare System, the medical facility formerly known as the Bronx Lebanon, where the Avery doctors are located.
About 140 firefighters gathered in the building as the fire intensified at about 7:20 p.m. on March 30, 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
Four women died due to smoke burning in their apartments. Another was wounded. Below the sixth floor, ceiling sprinklers turned on and flooded other units, including the home of 90-year-old Edith Thompson.
Thompson has lived in the apartment for 45 years. On the night of the fire, her daughter Cynthia Hammond said, she was able to get to an elevator on the other side of the building after people outside alerted her. The sprinklers caused the ceiling to collapse in several rooms, prompting the Department of Buildings (DOB) to cancel the order, so Thompson moved in with Hammond in a New Jersey suburb.
Hammond said she spent the following year hoping to return to the place she had called since the mid-1970s.
“It was just a horrible situation,” Hammond said. “My mom was like, ‘When can I go home? “I’m sure she was depressed. I loved staying here but there’s nothing like being at home.”
Thompson died in March, without returning to the apartment, or obtaining a satisfactory answer from the landlords. Another daughter she’s been living with since 2009, is now trying to secure a legal lease on the unit.
“What is disruption?” Hammond said. “It was excuse after excuse.”
DOB has issued evacuation orders on the nine units damaged after the fire but does not yet know when the owner will complete the necessary repairs. A DOB spokesperson said that asbestos control was underway on the building and that the agency had contacted the engineer to find out how long work would take.
Owners completed temporary roof repairs by October 20, 2020 and submitted an order to fully repair the roof and fire-damaged apartments in December 2020, according to DOB.
The 1,560 Grand Concourse tenants aren’t the only New Yorkers fighting to get their homes back after a disaster.
More than 60 tenants in Jackson Heights have been displaced by the April fire File a lawsuit against the property owner and the management company to speed up renovations. Countless other tenants They suffered damage to their homes In the wake of flooding from Hurricane Ida earlier this month, with just over 270 families Moving to temporary shelters in the city After the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) approved payments totaling $37 million to more than 8,200 New Yorkers. The city and state will provide another $27 million for undocumented immigrants affected by floods but not eligible for FEMA relief, Governor Cathy Hochhol and Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.
But relief funding and legal challenges are just early stages in what could turn into years of conflict.
The parties are set to return to court Thursday, after Bronx Housing Court Judge Howard Baum ordered landlords to allow tenants, their attorneys and inspectors to enter apartments and assess damages last month. Baum also instructed the real estate owners to submit documents for reimbursement of insurance costs and asbestos works.
The process will continue, but Dunbar, a Bronx nurse, said she had no intention of giving up.
She said she actually had to fight to win the right to a two-bedroom apartment after first moving in in 2015 to take care of her grandmother. When her grandmother fell ill and later died, Dunbar stayed put, finally winning a three-year legal dispute over a lease in January 2020.
She said she returned the lease signed just one week before the flames displaced her and her two children.
“I was just waiting to get back to my place,” she said.