ELMHURST — Tenants of an apartment building destroyed in a five-alarm fire are going to court to force the appointment of an independent official to oversee rebuilding, saying letting the owners do it would be like the “fox guarding the hen house” after a contractor was arrested for starting the blaze.
More than a third of the tenants of the Martinique Plaza, at 56-11 94th St., have signed on to the suit, which will be filed in housing court this week by Legal Aid.
The petition asks that a judge appoint an independent administrator to oversee all capital improvements to the 111-unit building, which was destroyed on April 11.
Yonkers contractor Declan McElhatton, 53, was arrested on April 12 after investigators found he did work with a torch, which is prohibited near tar on a wooden roof, officials said.
He was charged with arson, and is due back in court in June.
While the fire scorched the sixth floor, the more than 100 apartments below were flooded as firefighters battled the fire.
And the now-homeless tenants say they don't trust management — and fear they'll be priced out of their units, which are below the median rent for the area.
“We don’t want someone like that in charge to fix this building up," Sateesh Nori, the Legal Aid lawyer representing the tenants, said.
“The fox is guarding the hen house. Someone is responsible for a fire, you don’t want them then responsible for repairing the damage to the fire."
Tenants — who met with city officials at a meeting on Tuesday in Elmhurst to discuss their options — said the management company has been reaching out to select tenants promising them a new apartment if they don't take any legal action against them, they said.
They also said the building's superintendent changed his story since the evening of the fire, when he said there wasn't any work being done on the roof, to the time the fire marshals came out with its cause.
“At this point, there’s too many lies,” Darryl E. Reams, 60, who lived in the building for 25 years, said.
Since the fire, tenants have been camped in hotels across the city, and are now being placed in homeless shelters, they said.
Many said the placements have been "unlivable" and are worried about what's next.
“It’s staggering there’s so little assistance,” tenant Michael Timmons, 33, said.
“I went to HRA, HPD. You spend all day there only for them to tell you they can’t do anything for you.”
Algin Management officials denied any wrongdoing, saying they share the residents' "shock and dismay" over the fire.
"The owners have been deeply committed to this building over the past fifty years, and from the moment this incident occurred, management has been in contact with all residents to communicate verbally and in writing — both in correspondence and posted online for immediate public access — that it is committed to maintaining the tenancy of all who wish to keep their apartments," officials sent in a statement.
"Any claims to the contrary are patently false. Leases are being preserved and apartments are being held for residents who wish to return when repairs are complete."