THE BRONX — The city pays slumlords above-market rent for decrepit apartments to house homeless families in poor living conditions while leaving taxpayers with the $125 million-a-year tab.
One of those landlords owns the Bronx apartment building where two girls were fatally burned by an explosion of radiator steam.
Moshe Piller of X Hunts Point Equities LLC was renting five apartments inside his buildings at 710-720 Hunts Point Ave. to the city as part of its cluster homeless shelter program. Piller has been a known slumlord for decades, has been on and off the city's worst landlords list and has been sued by his tenants for overcharging them and failing to make repairs.
"He's certainly been in the real estate business for decades and his reputation for decades is that he maintains his buildings poorly and tries to extract as much money as possible," said Ed Josephson, director of litigation for Legal Services NYC who is representing plaintiffs in two lawsuits against Piller.
Those suits, in the Bronx and Brooklyn, cite poor living conditions and overcharging tenants rent. In one Bronx building, tenants said they went without gas for months, according to the suit.
"I feel horrible that children should die for any reason but if a landlord systematically neglects his property, sooner or later something horrible is going to happen," Josephson said.
Two girls — 1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose — suffered first, second and third degree burns over 70 percent of their bodies inside of 720 Hunts Point Ave. at about 12:05 p.m. Wednesday when a valve on a radiator came off, sending steam shooting into the girls' room, officials said.
The infants were rushed to Lincoln Hospital where they were pronounced dead.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy on the children and determined that the girls died of extreme overheating and thermal injuries due to exposure to hot steam.
In 2015, Piller was on the Public Advocate's worst landlord's list, ranked as the fourth worst landlord in the five boroughs, though not for the building in Wednesday's fatalities.
According to the list, released by Public Advocate Letitia James, Piller had 4,010 units in eight buildings with 1,263 Housing Preservation and Development violations and 168 Department of Building complaints.
James says the city should not have been renting apartments from Piller for vulnerable homeless families.
“It is unforgivable that the city continues to enter into contracts with providers who do not ensure that these apartments are habitable, and today, we witnessed the lethal consequences of this neglect," said James.
"No funds should be provided to landlords to house homeless families unless full floor-to-ceiling, building-wide inspections are conducted and reveal no hazardous conditions. These inspections must be ongoing and the results made publicly accessible," she added.
Piller did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the city's shelter repair scorecard, the two buildings at 710-720 Hunts Point Ave. had 139 open violations as of October. One of the buildings had 14 new violations.
Records show that 720 Hunts Point Ave. has 36 open Dept. of Buildings violations. The building also has 26 open violations from HPD. City inspectors found defective plumbing and problems with gas connections at the building on Nov. 2 during a semi-annual homeless shelter inspection in the building, according to DOB records.
The building was issued a violation for plumbing issues related to gas connections in the building's basement, according to DOB records.
Under the cluster shelter program, which Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration in January said the city would end, the city rents apartments in privately owned, low-income buildings that have historically been in poor shape.
The city pays above market rent, approximately $3,500 per month each, for the apartments, leaving taxpayers with a $125 million-a-year tab for rent and social services, and homeless families in shabby living conditions.
The city housed 11,000 people in 260 buildings across the five boroughs in January 2016 when Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks pledged to end the program.
City Hall and Department of Homeless Services officials did not respond to multiple questions about how many, if any, cluster sites have been closed in the past 11 months.
A 2015 audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer found that a sample of 101 apartments at eight randomly selected cluster sites found 323 health and safety concerns at 88 percent of the units.
On Thursday, Stringer said cluster site apartments have 13,000 open violations, including 1,000 "high priority" or very dangerous violations.
"As the deaths of two young children in the Bronx yesterday highlighted, 'cluster sites' — buildings that have a mix of renters and DHS clients — can be extremely dangerous for homeless families. Many of these rooms are within buildings owned by notoriously bad landlords, a problem the City has known about for years," Stringer said in a statement.
The comptroller also questioned whether de Blasio has a plan to end the use of cluster site housing, calling on the city to explain how they plan "to phase out the use of 'cluster site' shelters by the end of 2018, and if it was on track to do so."
The cluster housing at 720 Hunts Point Ave. was rented from Piller and operated by Bushwick Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit the city Department of Investigation flagged in a March 2015 report for operating a poorly maintained and unsafe cluster housing site at another Bronx building.
The remaining four families at the Hunts Point Avenue buildings will be moved.
In a statement, de Blasio said the city was "mourning" the two young girls.
“We are in the preliminary stages of what is a highly active, multi-agency investigation into what happened in this home and whether there’s anything that can be done to help prevent such an unspeakable event in the future," said the mayor.
With a record 60,686 people in shelter, Josephson said he understands that the city needs to house families. City law guarantees a right to shelter.
"The city is desperate and looking for place to put homeless families. The kinds of landlords willing to rent to families coming from shelters are not the high-end landlords," said Josephson.
But there is also a need for safety.
"There is no way to forbid someone like Moshe Piller from buying buildings, but I would hope they do some kind of inspection before they place families," said Josephson. "The city needs to be as aggressive as possible in enforcing the housing code."