More than 60 of the hundreds of tenants displaced after a massive fire at a Jackson Heights apartment building in April are now suing the property’s owners and management, as well as city agencies.
They’re demanding that the building’s owners repair their homes so they may return — and let them back in soon to retrieve possessions from the still heavily damaged and inaccessible block-long complex.
The building remains surrounded by scaffolding and caution tape, with many windows boarded up. The eight-alarm blaze crumbled ceilings and destroyed interior walls, exposing wooden beams in their place.
Tenants allege that in the five months since the fire, Kedex Properties and city officials have provided little sense of when repairs will be completed, if any belongings can be salvaged and when residents might be able to return to their apartments.
Access to the building has been “unreasonable and severely limited,” according to the complaint filed Sept. 10 in Queens Housing Court targeting the owner, along with the city Department of Buildings and Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Several dozen tenants in one wing of the two-address, 133-unit building have been allowed scheduled visits to retrieve personal items. but former residents of more than 60 apartments in the other wing have not been granted that same privilege, said Andrew Sokolof-Diaz, the building’s tenant association president and a plaintiff in the suit.
“We have exercised our rights as displaced rent stabilized tenants to bring this lawsuit forth after so many delays and denial of access to our own belongings,” he added. “Our goals remain the same: to mitigate our displacement from home in Jackson Heights and to protect what salvageable belongings we have left inside while ensuring we have a dignified and sensible timeline for repairs until we are able to return.”
Legal Aid attorney Amee Master, who is representing the tenants, said the landlord is required under state law to repair the building promptly.
“Kedex Properties can no longer ignore its obligation to undergo the necessary work to ensure the building is safe, habitable, and up to code for the residents to return,” Master said.
Kedex Properties declined to comment.
Blocked From Building
The April fire, which the FDNY said was sparked by an overloaded power strip on the building’s top floor, rendered about 500 people living in the rent-stabilized building homeless. The majority were Hispanic, displaced residents say.
Since then, tenants have regularly rallied to improve their situation, noting the uncertainty of how long they can stay in hotel rooms paid for by the city and protesting lack of access to their property.
In mid-July, the Department of Buildings modified its previous order to fully vacate the premises, allowing tenants of the first five floors of one wing of the building to enter, city records show. Since May, Kedex Properties had been contacting tenants of that section to schedule times to gather personal items, several confirmed to THE CITY.
Tenants who lived in the other half of the building are still barred from entering, even to get personal documents.
“We understand that we won’t be able to access all of the units in the building due to the conditions in some of them,” lawsuit plaintiff and tenant Angie Espino said at an August rally tenants held to fight for access to their possessions. “An equitable opportunity to recuperate our belongings is the least we deserve.”
Those apartments remain off limits due to asbestos abatement and other cleanup efforts, according to the Department of Buildings, which noted that abatement work concluded last week.
For these tenants to be allowed in, the abatement company contracted by Kedex Properties will have to submit an air testing report to the city, and engineers must then confirm this wing of the building is safe, according to the DOB.
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings, said that the city will review the lawsuit and declined to comment further.
The tenant association contends that the building’s owners are hiding behind DOB’s order to vacate “as an excuse for delays,” Sokolof-Diaz said.
The building meanwhile has 129 housing code violations for unrepaired fire damage. Kedex Properties has to get city agency approval before allowing former residents to permanently return.
Cecilia Farciert, a plaintiff who lived on the first floor with her three children for more than two decades, said that losing her home was hard enough. Now, she said, it appears the building’s owners and city agencies don’t care about helping tenants recover what possessions they have left.
“All our lives and our moments are buried in the apartment that for 23 years has been our home,” said Farciert. “It has already been very sad and very painful to know that we lost our home and that it is going to be a long time before we can live there again.”
“Now they want us to give up what little we can try to save. At this point, we don’t know who to trust, we don’t know who to believe.”
Won’t Let Go
With the lawsuit, tenants hope to compel Kedex Properties and city agencies to correct code violations, provide timely updates for such work and stop construction until more residents are given access to preserve personal property.
Kedex Properties had informed select tenants that they wouldn’t be able to retrieve belongings before construction work commences, the lawsuit alleges.
“Petitioners, who already had been displaced from their homes during a global pandemic and public health crisis and endured damage to their personal property, may suffer a complete loss of their belongings,” the complaint reads.
The building’s owners told some residents to forget the items they had inside, to think of them as a deceased person to relinquish, multiple tenants told THE CITY.
“I refuse to accept that argument, because when one loses a loved one, one is left with all kinds of memories,” Farciert said. “And they don’t want to allow us even that.”