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City Offers Little Help to Rent-Stabilized Tenants Left Homeless by Fire

By Gwynne Hogan | May 9, 2017 12:10pm
 Neris Ramirez, Franklin Montero, Paula Herrera, Jorge Ventura and Jose Cruz stand in front of the building they used to live in.
Neris Ramirez, Franklin Montero, Paula Herrera, Jorge Ventura and Jose Cruz stand in front of the building they used to live in.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

BUSHWICK — A group of tenants displaced from their homes by a massive blaze have been living in shelters for more than a year as their landlord drags his feet on repairing the rent-stabilized property with little challenge from city agencies, their lawyer says.

Building manager Mansour Mehdizadeh, acting on behalf United Vernon LLC, the owner of 1423 Dekalb Ave., waited seven months to file permits to make repairs on his burnt-out building, a month after tenants sued him in Brooklyn Supreme Court to compel repairs.

But construction has been at a standstill again since the end of January, when the city's Department of Buildings issued a stop work order for violations that made the site dangerous for workers, records show.

Tenant lawyer Adam Meyers, who works at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, said the city could do several things to speed up the process, but have failed to do any of them despite ongoing conversations with HPD officials on tenant protection task forces in the neighborhood.

"It's difficult to pin them down to a direct answer. They've decided that for whatever reason, this is not a priority," Meyers said. "These people have been in a shelter for more than a year now. It's pretty dire."

For example, the DOB could issue citations for violations due to dangerous work conditions, as they have already done at least once since the Jan. 30 stop work order, Meyers said.

The Department of Housing and Preservation and Development could sue for a 7a transfer, which would appoint an independent property manager to fix the building, or list the building in its emergency repair program under which they fix the building and then bill the owner, Meyers said.

Department of Buildings spokesman Andrew Rudansky said the landlord's repair plans were deemed reasonable by the agency.

HPD spokeswoman Elizabeth Rohlfing said that agency sued the landlord in August 2016 for repairs when the landlord failed to comply the terms of the agency's vacate order.

She said that the agency is seeking a court order to fix the property rather than use HPD's emergency repair program. A judge will hear arguments on the landlords motion to dismiss in June. 

Meanwhile it's been 13 months since the March 29, 2016 blaze devoured 1423 DeKalb Ave. and three other buildings on the block, displacing more than 60 people, destroying a Karate dojo and a church and killing a flock of pet homing pigeons caged on the roof.

Each day since former tenant Paula Herrera, 64, who now lives in a Canarsie shelter, struggles to quell the worries of her 8-year-old grandson who asks when they'll get to move back.

"When are they going to give us the apartment?" he wonders, Herrera said in Spanish. "Every day, every paper that arrives, every letter that comes, he asks, 'Is it for the apartment. Is is for the house? Every time we pass by, he says 'Oh my house.'"

Her response has been the same for months upon months now: "Not yet, not yet. We have to wait."

Even before the March 2016, conditions at 1423 Dekalb Ave. had been deteriorating for years. There were 200 open HPD violations for rotted support beams, leaks, cracked plaster and unsafe electrical wiring, leading up to the blaze, HPD records show.

The building's longtime elderly owner, Josephine Ilarda, had stopped maintaining the building and later passed away. Tenants had been withholding rent for upwards of a year, their attorney said, when United Vernon LLC swooped in and bought the building for $900,000 in January of 2016.

Residents thought it was their chance to get much needed repairs, but instead several were offered $25,000 buyouts. Less than a month later the building caught fire. Investigators determined the fire was sparked by faulty electrical wires in a neighboring building.

Residents thought they'd be let back in right away. It seemed like most of the fire damage had happened in nearby buildings and the main issue in their apartments was water damage. But when they tried to get back in days after the blaze to collect some valuables, some were let in for five minute spurts, others weren't let in at all.

In an act of desperation, their attorney sued the landlord in September, charging that the building's dismal state of repair even before the March 2016 fire exacerbated the damage caused by the blaze. Open HPD citations include four violations for defective fire retardant material in different parts of the building.

Tenants are demanding $102,070 in lost property and for the landlord to speed repairs.

Jeffrey Gold, a lawyer for United Vernon LLC's insurance company, called the tenants' claims "baseless."

“We we weren’t negligent. We didn’t do anything wrong. We were victims," he said. "We weren't responsible for the loss, we weren't responsible for the spread of the fire."

Some payment might be made to the tenants at some point, but far less than the amount they are asking for, he added.

Gold declined to comment on when the repairs to the building would be completed.

Herrera spends a lot of time alone in her shelter room thinking about 14 years worth of objects and memories lost in Dekalb Avenue fire, she said. She tears up when she remembers her tiny pet fish Mimo that burned in the blaze.

"I wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I'm in my house," Herrera said in tears, adding that she quickly realizes it was just a dream.

"I'm far from my home."