Residents Displaced by Grand St. Fire Return Home Three Years Later

By Serena Solomon on July 18, 2013 3:34pm | Updated on July 18, 2013 7:33pm

CHINATOWN — Standing in flip-flops and a bathrobe on a night three years ago, Elizabeth Taylor watched as flames spread through her home.

"Every window had fire coming out of it, then we watched it creep into our building," she said of the seven-alarm blaze at 289 Grand St. on April 12, 2010 that ignited three buildings, killing an 87-year-old man, injuring 33 people and leaving 200 residents displaced.

"Standing in the street and watching your building burn is something I don't want anyone to go through," said Taylor, a model and actress who lived in the building eight years before the fire broke out.

Taylor and seven other tenants finally returned to their rent-controlled apartments in May following a two-year legal battle that ultimately forced 289 Grand St.'s landlord to repair and restore the building. 

"They [the tenants] suffered enormously and they have waited long enough," State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said at a press conference Thursday celebrating the tenants' return.

Silver, along with other elected officials and local organizations, supported the residents through the legal battle that followed the fire.

"It was a long and difficult road and the tenants have finally won their right to return home," Silver said.

Even though the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Department of Buildings gave the green light for the water- and fire-damaged building to be restored, 289 Grand St.'s owner, Wong’s Grand Reality Corp., pushed for it to be demolished, saying the cost of repairs would be too great.

If a building containing rent-regulated housing is demolished, the landlord has no obligation to reinstate the affordable housing in the new building, according to Peter Gee, the director of housing and community services for Asian Americans for Equality, an organization that offered legal help for the residents. However, if the building is repaired, the affordable housing must be maintained, Gee said. 

The tenants who returned to 289 Grand St. in May remained in rent-regulated apartments, with rents similar to what they were paying before the fire, ranging from $300 to $1,800 a month, Gee said.

In March 2012, the New York City Civil Court ordered that all apartments at 289 Grand St. be restored and gave the owner a March 1, 2013 deadline.

The other two buildings damaged by the fire — 283 and 285 Grand St. — had to be demolished.

Wong's Grand Realty Corp. could not immediately be reached for comment.

For Stephan Vendola, an 84-year-old dance instructor, life after the fire meant bouncing around from hotel rooms to temporary accommodations, not knowing if he could ever return to 289 Grand St.

"It was traumatic. It really was — not knowing where I would live," he said. It was also months before he could even go into the building to sift through his personal possessions.

Taylor said she, too, was upset by the years of being displaced and fighting with her landlord.

"One would assume after a fire like that your landlord takes care of you," she said. "To know that the landlord was very quietly pulling the rug from underneath you was terrifying."

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