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Grand Street Tenants Evicted By Fire See Way Home in Court Decision

LOWER EAST SIDE — Stephan Vendola heard a commotion outside his building at 289 Grand Street on April 12, 2010. He stepped outside to find the building on fire and hasn't been back inside his rent controlled apartment since.

Vendola, 80, escaped a massive fire that tore through three buildings on Grand Street and killed a man and left more than 30 people injured. Now, he finally may be able to return to his apartment as soon as a year from now after a court decision ordered the building's owner to restore all the apartments damaged in the blaze and will pay close to the $500 in rent he did before the fire.

"Today's court ruling, I think it's incredible," said Vendola. "We'll get into our building; start out life again."

The building's owner, Wong's Grand Realty Corp., had claimed "economic infeasibility" in its bid to nor repair the aparrtments sauing the cost would "completely overwhelm any possible income that the building could generate," according to court papers.

A New York Civil Court ruling refuted that claim and ordered the company to restore the apartments.

"This is an important issue for [the Department of Housing Preservation and Development] to make sure this device of economic infeasibility does not become the defense du jour when an owner is faced with a rehab order," said John Gorman, an attorney advocating on behalf of the tenants.

The owner tried to prove the building was worth $3.5 million before the fire and that the cost of rehabilitating it would cost more than $7 million, but the judge ruled they failed "to show the value of the premise if restored," the decision said.

The court, instead, found that the building could be restored for about $2.3 million.

Wong's Grand Realty Corp. now has until March 1, 2013 to restore the building, pending any appeals.

Gorman said he expects the owner to seek a stay of the court order, but said he hopes they will have to "perfect their appeal immediately, because every day this building sits there exposed the elements is going to harm the building."

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver added the decision will help "make sure that we do not become the city of the very wealthy and the very poor only, and the hardworking middle class will be driven from our city."