About nine months after one of the deadliest fires ever in The Bronx, Vernessa Cunningham says that she’s still fighting to regain what she lost.
Cunningham, a 61-year-old survivor of the Twin Parks apartment complex fire that killed 17 people and displaced dozens on January 9, had been living first in a Ramada Inn and then a Best Western Plus, both in the South Bronx.
New York City, working with the nonprofit group BronxWorks, had been covering the bill for her hotel stays, as part of what a City Hall spokesperson said was a commitment to keep fire survivors still trying to find new apartments in hotels through at least October 5, or longer if needed.
But on August 22, Cunningham was at Harlem Hospital, where she’s worked for 24 years, when she answered a call from a hotel clerk who told her that she needed to vacate her room “immediately,” she recalled. The clerk cited a letter and said it had been mailed to her a week earlier, but Cunningham says that she never received that letter and had no idea her time was up.
After calling Councilmember Oswald Feliz, whose district encompasses Twin Parks, Cunningham says she was given four more days to find a new place to live. Feliz did not respond to questions from THE CITY about his involvement.
“It’s just been traumatic,” said Cunningham. “That’s it.”
‘In This for the Long Haul’
A spokesperson for City Hall, speaking on background, told THE CITY that most of the Twin Parks families have found new apartments and just three remain in hotels, including two that have been connected to permanent housing. The spokesperson said that the remaining family’s stay at their hotel would be extended past October 5 if necessary.
That list does not include Cunningham, who had been staying in hotels in the South Bronx since the night of the fire. A couple of weeks after that, she says, the city sent her $2,500 in financial assistance through BronxWorks, and then $10,000 more in July. Each family affected by the fire has received at least $12,250 in cash assistance, according to the spokesperson for City Hall.
In February, Cunningham says, Twin Parks management and BronxWorks told her that the two-bedroom apartment she’d shared with her adult daughter would soon be safe for her to return. But when she visited, Cunningham said, “the apartment never got cleaned up like it was supposed to,” and had a lingering smell of animals that died in the fire and smoke fumes.
“Every time I went into that apartment, my hands came out with black smut all over them,” she said, adding that her mattress and furniture still had smoke damage.
The City Hall spokesperson said that families all had offers to have their apartments restored, and that Cunningham’s visit would have come before a vacate order was lifted sometime in April, so what she saw in her apartment would not have represented what she would have returned to.
Her return visit also came before Eric Adams said in March that “New York City made a vow to help the more than 150 families who suffered through the unspeakable tragedy at Twin Parks and we are continuing to deliver on that promise day after day.”
The mayor made that vow while announcing an additional $3 million going to BronxWorks for families impacted by the fire — a commitment that came days after DocumentedNY published a story in which survivors accused the city of not doing enough to help them rebuild their lives.
Adams continued: “We are in this for the long haul, since picking up the pieces will not come easy.”
Indeed, it hasn’t been easy for Cunningham.
Building management and BronxWorks told Cunningham that tenants would start getting charged rent again by April 1, she recalled. Uninterested in returning, Cunningham began to gather up as many of her surviving possessions out of her old apartment, which was above the floor where the fire started and into storage — with the help of BronxWorks, which also paired each dislocated family with a case manager, covering the cost for as long as she stayed in the hotel. Her smoke-damaged mattress and furniture were left behind.
While the City Hall spokesperson said this week that families were all also offered the opportunity to move to another apartment in the building, Cunningham said she never received any such offer.
“If they offered it, I would have told them what to do with it. But they didn’t offer me no other apartment,” she said.
By late March, City Limits reported that at least 40 families had returned to 333 East 181st Street and that all apartments were open except for the 14 units on the third floor, where the fire originated.
Working with her BronxWorks case manager, Cunningham hunted for new housing for her and her 24-year-old daughter to replace their $1,621 two-bedroom apartment. Together, their income was too high to qualify for a housing voucher. But since her daughter qualified for a voucher on her own, Cunningham decided it was best for them to seek separate places. Her daughter was able to secure a one-bedroom apartment with a Section 8 housing voucher.
“They gave her the voucher. She got her furniture. She’s good,” she said.
In addition to housing vouchers for people below a certain income, the cash assistance and the storage payments, the city also covered furniture costs for families moving into new apartments.
Cunningham, however, wasn’t eligible for a voucher because she made too much money as a city worker with a base pay of $54,000 that was pushed up to $104,000 by overtime in 2021.
The city worker found the permanent housing options offered to her were too expensive — over $1,900 for a one-bedroom — and in neighborhoods that she felt were too dangerous for someone who works the midnight shift.
“I’m not just gonna take anything because I just wasn’t in anything,” she said.
In May, Cunningham says that she told her BronxWorks case worker she was pursuing buying a home instead. “Because [of] everything they was offering, I told her that it would be best because the rents is too high. And me at my age, I can’t see myself paying anyone $2,000 for an apartment when it could be a mortgage.”
A City Hall spokesperson told THE CITY in an email that Cunningham chose to stop working with the city after telling her case manager that she was instead searching for property to buy upstate. The spokesperson added that before May, every family would have been offered a chance to return to their renovated apartment, a new apartment in the building, or placement in affordable housing elsewhere.
“A hotel room is by no means an appropriate place for anyone to live long term, which is why our administration is proud to have worked collaboratively with all families impacted by the Twin Parks fire to either help them return to their repaired homes, or to have found more than 95 families new, affordable apartments as quickly as possible,” said City Hall spokesperson Kayla Mamelak. “No one has been, or will be, evicted with nowhere to go, but this work cannot be done alone. We need all those impacted to work in partnership with the city and their case managers to help find the proper placement solution.”
The majority of the families that have been successfully relocated in new apartments are receiving housing vouchers and were placed in La Central, a new rental community in the South Bronx, according to a City Hall spokesperson.
‘Trying to Find a Home Right Now’
Cunningham has been staying with a friend in the Fordham area of The Bronx since leaving her hotel, sleeping on a sofa bed. She still works the midnight shift at Harlem Hospital, clocking in extra hours to make up for the paid leave time she took from January 9 to March 31.
While the city paid to store Cunninham’s things after vacating from the Twin Parks apartment, she’s had to start paying the $321/rate since being forced to leave the hotel.
“I’m trying to find a home right now,” she said. “I was ready to retire next year. [Now] I got to get a roof over my head.”
Cunningham is now paying her friend about $500 in rent and while she says that she is grateful and has appreciated living with her and having home-cooked meals like short ribs with mac n’ cheese and spinach, Cunningham has missed living with her daughter.
Before the fire, Cunningham and her daughter were very close but she says that the months apart have taken a toll on their relationship.
“It’s so much different. It hurts. Just the things she says now. I can’t even explain it,” said Cunningham, choking up on her words while speaking with THE CITY in the First Union Baptist Church, where she’s been a congregation member for the last 24 years and currently serves as a trustee. “It’s been a real strain.”
But after seeing her daughter at a baby shower the previous day, Cunningham said, she felt a jolt of optimism after a hard year.
“Yesterday I saw her [and] she said, ‘Mommy, I love you. Give me a kiss.’ I was like, okay, maybe we do have a chance here,” she said.
While Cunningham continues to survive a stressful ordeal, a city spokesperson said the door remains open.