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Tenants Fear Faulty Wiring in Building Where Fire Injured 12 People

By Kate Pastor | August 18, 2017 4:21pm | Updated on August 18, 2017 4:23pm
 Natasha Tosca in her building's hallway, showing damage left from a fire in early July.
Natasha Tosca in her building's hallway, showing damage left from a fire in early July.
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Kate Pastor

LONGWOOD — Persistent fire code violations at a South Bronx building where a July electrical fire injured a dozen people have left tenants terrified for their safety.

Residents are fed up with landlord Hiram Colon, and say their next move may be asking a state judge to take the building away from him.

More than a month after the fire, the building at 851 E. 163rd St. still has 225 open violations, according to records from the Department of Housing and Preservation, and tenants believe the fire could have been avoided if the problems they had been complaining about for years had been fixed.

Elisa Garcia, 47, lives with her four children in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The electricity has gone out in most of her apartment 19 times since the beginning of July, she said, speaking through a Spanish-to-English translator. 

She said Colon had been there twice recently but she did not know what he had done, and a tangle of wires on her fusebox was still exposed.

Natasha Tosca, who helped form a new tenant's association, said her fourth-floor apartment is also plagued by frequent power outages and light bulbs that blow out. She and other tenants have complained of inflated electric bills, and she said she'd been telling the landlord about the outages since she moved there in 2013.

Her fears of having another fire became so intense that she makes her kids sleep in the living room so they are closer to the apartment door in case they need to escape.

"People were throwing their dogs out the window, literally," she said of the July blaze, which organizers say was not the first of its kind at that location.

There are currently numerous open violations regarding broken or missing smoke detectors and blocked fire escapes, which organizers said made the fire — which sent tenants leaping from fire escapes to get out of the building — even more dangerous.

But the July blaze helped motivate tenants to organize, Tosca said.

"I was tired. I didn't know other people here had problems with their electricity," she said. 

Tenants say the issues go beyond just the electricity, and the building shows many signs of disrepair.  

Garcia's kitchen window has been stuck open for months, she said, while her father's apartment on the same floor has windows that don't keep out the cold and there are missing tiles on the floor. Tosca says regular water leaks in her bathroom left "actual mushrooms" growing there, as well as black mold.   

She has been fighting and winning with the landlord for some time after filing a rent overcharge complaint with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, as well as complaining about lack of services.

When she signed her lease in 2013, she said her monthly rent was $1,200. She did some research and found out that her legal rent was supposed to be $613.85. Now the landlord is only allowed to collect $597.42 because of the conditions in her apartment, and owes her $63,646.11 for rent she overpaid as well as damages.

She said the landlord is appealing the decision; his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The person listed as manager agent of the building, Hiram Colon Jr., could not be reached for comment. Messages left for the building owner were not returned. The super, Evira Torres, said she is new but is doing her best to fix things.

The tenant's association, which is now working with Banana Kelly, a nonprofit housing organization, will soon be asking a judge to appoint an administrator to take over management of the building. 

"Anybody could have died in that fire," Tosca said.