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.

Uday Talwar

The color change due to the March 2020 fire was still visible above the upstairs windows.

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.

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