SoHo Fire Victims Demand Answers from Landlord

By Andrea Swalec on August 18, 2011 2:28pm 

Former 68 Thompson St. resident Bernice Acosta said she is looking for a new apartment now but wants to organize with her former neighbors in case they can prove neglect by the building's owners.
Former 68 Thompson St. resident Bernice Acosta said she is looking for a new apartment now but wants to organize with her former neighbors in case they can prove neglect by the building's owners.
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DNAinfo/Andrea Swalec

SOHO — Tenants of the SoHo building evacuated after a fire on Aug. 5 say they've been unable to get their landlord to answer their individual questions about the fate of the building — so they've started mobilizing to try to get some answers as a group.

About 40 former residents of 68 Thompson St. gathered Tuesday night at the Shrine Church of Saint Anthony of Padua for a legal question-and-answer session with housing lawyers invited by the office of City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.

"You as a group can make this go faster," said Kenneth Lau, an attorney for MFY Legal Services Inc., a social justice-oriented nonprofit law group, "The landlord has more incentive to make repairs if you act as a group." 

Lau said the first step former building residents can take is to create a tenants association - which could help to resolve some of the issues that tenants are currently grappling with.

Some residents of the six-story building — which was a combination of rent-stabilized, rent-regulated and market-rate apartments — said they wanted to retrieve all of their belongings, get their security deposits and August rent back, and leave. Others said they want to return to their apartments. 

Former resident Kathie Cammann, 64, a professional gardener, said she's in favor of forming a tenants' association and wants to protect her right to move back into the building once it is restored. 

"I'm doing whatever I can to protect my lease," she said. "I was there for 34 years and I want to keep my apartment. That's my home." 

Resident Bernice Acosta, 48, said she is looking for a new apartment now and does not expect to move back into the SoHo building, but  she wants to organize with her former neighbors in case they can prove that the landlord was negligent.

"A tenants' association would be great. You have strength in numbers," Acosta said. 

Many of the tenants said the fire, which investigators found to be caused by an electrical problem in the building's basement, did not set off any smoke alarms. 

The building's owner, 68-74 Thompson Realty LLC, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

John Gorman, a legal consultant for Asian Americans for Equality, compared the blaze to the April 2010 fire on Grand Street that killed one tenant and displaced dozens more. Residents of 283 and 285 Grand St. filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming neglect.

Gorman suggested that the tenants discuss hiring a private fire investigator to get a second opinion on what started the fire.

Councilwoman Chin said in a statement that she supports the building's tenants in their attempt to protect their apartments. 

“Our goal is to get the tenants organized," Chin said.

"Recovering from a fire is a long process, and they need to stick together. They need to pressure the property owner to get these repairs done as quickly as possible. I will be behind them 100 percent.”

A bill co-sponsored by Chin would allow the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development to charge buildings' owners for relocation expenses in the event of a fire or vacate order.

The bill would require owners to deposit at least 10 percent of the rent roll for the five years prior to a vacate order to an escrow account in the department's name. 

The City Council has referred the bill to committee. 

Cammann, who has been staying with family members on Long Island since the fire, said it felt strange not be able to walk home after Tuesday's meeting. 

"I'm a tourist now in my own neighborhood," she said. "It's surreal." 

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