THE BRONX — Tenants of 2400 Webb Ave., who were forced from their building last week after the fire escapes were illegally removed during renovations, still have no idea when they'll be able to return to their homes.
Dozens of residents packed the second floor of New Life Outreach International to meet with city housing officials and the fire department Tuesday night. The meeting lasted nearly three hours and was frequently puntuated by shouting, and tears.
"We've packed up our kids, we've packed up our pets, we're pulling our hair out," said one emotional tenant, who did not want to give her name. "We have absolutely no idea what tomorrow is going to bring."
Anna Bondy, a 43-year-old mother of three young children, told city offcials through tears, "When you go home tonight, you can relax and say 'There's no place like home.' I can't do that."
Tenants were evacuated in a rush last week after by the Fire Department after they discovered the property's management company had removed all of their fire escapes while remodeling the building's facade.
City officials say the removal was never approved, and immediately ordered an evacuation.
"We don't take vacate orders lightly," Bronx FDNY Chief Kevin Butler told tenants last night. "We can't, in good conscience, leave a building with 75 families and no secondary means of egress."
"Thank God we found it the way we found it and not through a fire, and no one able to get out," he said.
Though officials said they were expediting the process, it would still take time to reinstall fire escapes on all 75 apartments. Cabrera said he spoke to landlord Phillip Goldfarb, of Goldfarb Real Properties — who did not attend last night's meeting — and was told the reconstruction would take six to eight weeks, but could take longer.
"This is construction," Cabrera said. "No one is making any promises."
Requests for comment to Goldfarb Properties were not returned by press time.
Tenants, who spent the last week scrambling to find shelter, are finding it hard to be patient.
"This is unacceptable," said Harold Cruz, who has lived in the building for 17 years. "You guys have to do your jobs and it's gotta be done faster."
Delia Washington, 40, who lives with her 1-year-old baby daughter and her disabled mother, had to check into a hotel in New Rochelle, the closest one she could find that could accomodate her mother's health problems. She's now a lengthy commute from work and from her babysitter, who lives just down the block from the Webb Avenue building.
Worst of all, she said, is what it's costing her. When she checked out this weekend, she was presented with a bill for $1,017.
"My hotel room that I'm paying for is as much as my rent," she said, adding that she pays $1,400 a month for her apartment.
Goldfarb has offered to compensate tenants with $120 a day to go toward the cost of a hotel, but the group says it's not enough, especially for the inconvience. Management has allowed tenats to return to their apartments to gather more of their things, but only for 15 minutes at a time, and only by appointment.
Cabrera urged the tenants at last night's meeting to remain organized, and set up a Facebook group for scattered tenants to stay in touch. Jonathan Levy, and a housing lawyer for Legal Services NYC, said they will need to use their strength as a group to hold Goldfarb accountable.
Tenant after tenant listed grievances about the landlord, and many said they thought the fire escape debacle was a tactic to force out rent stabilized tenants and bring in higher-paying tenants. SInce last week's evacuation, Goldfarb has offered tenants the option of a buyout if they choose to abandon the building altogether.
Longtime tenant Virginia Vicenty, 72, says she feels that Goldfarb has been pressuring her to leave for years because she pays several hundred dollars less than her market-rate paying neighbor upstairs for the same apartment.
"I've lived in this building for 33 years," Vycenty said in Spanish. "This company is a dracula."