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Chinatown Tenants Displaced by Massive Fire Sue Landlord for Neglect

CHINATOWN — The owners of a pair of Grand Street buildings gutted by a massive fire last year created a death trap by intentionally letting the structure fall into such disrepair that it became a "tinderbox" for the fatal blaze, a new lawsuit claims.

The landlords' "malicious" neglect of the buildings caused the fast-moving, seven-alarm inferno on April 11, 2010, that killed one tenant and displaced dozens more at 283 and 285 Grand St., the suit charges. Dozens of the 250 firefighters who responded to the fire were also injured.

A group of 27 families representing 75 tenants filed the claim in Manhattan Supreme Court Wednesday, saying the owners failed to maintain the buildings’ electrical systems, causing an electrical box to malfunction and sparking the blaze.

The suit also says the landlord, Fair Only Real Estate Corporation, didn't provide adequate fire-retardant materials throughout the residences and failed to install functioning smoke detectors.

Severe leaks in the building's rotted walls allowed the fire to spread quickly, and accumulated trash provided “kindling” for the fire to feed off, the suit claims. 

The action seeks at least $2 million in damages for the families who were left homeless, some of whom had been living in the buildings for 30 years and lost all of their possessions.

The court papers say that the property owners, listed as Solomon Scheinfeld and Ralph Sherman, “intentionally maintained these buildings in a dangerous state of disrepair” prior to the fire and “willfully, knowingly and intentionally ignored the highly dangerous conditions that they created.”

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development cited the property for a lack of fire-retardant materials during multiple inspections only months before the fire, according to the suit. Additionally, the Fire Department evacuated the building about four months prior to the fire because of smoke emanating from a basement boiler, the suit said.

“This is not just an accidental fire,” said Chris Kui, executive director of Asian American for Equality, which worked with the tenants both before and after the blaze. “This is a result of neglect of the building over many, many years. We really want to send a message that they can no longer get away with it.”

A representative for Fair Only Real Estate could not immediately be reached for comment.