Tenants say they fear the property owners are waging a war of attrition, waiting the renters out until they give up, move on and forfeit the rent-regulated apartments.
First came the fire that ripped through her apartment building, killed four neighbors and left her homeless in March 2020. Then came the September rainstorm that flooded the city and knocked out a wall of the basement where she was staying while she awaits repairs. Now, after 18 months in hotels, shelters and family members’ apartments, Bronx nurse Oneka Dunbar just wants to go back home with her two children.
The problem for Dunbar, and eight other families displaced by the fire at 1560 Grand Concourse, is that the landlords haven’t yet completed the necessary renovations—despite a judge’s order to have the work done by the end of August 2020.
The group of tenants took legal action against the landlord, 1560 GC LLC; the management company, Chestnut Holdings; and the Chestnut executives, Jonathan Wiener and Ben Rieder, to force the repairs and reclaim their apartments in April 2020, a month after the fire. A year and a half later, it’s unclear if the owners have started fixing the damage caused by firehoses or removing the asbestos they say they found in the ceiling.
Through it all, Dunbar has continued working as a nurse, now with the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. She has stayed in a shelter in Queens, at her sister’s home in Connecticut and with her daughter’s father in the flooded basement. She has been mostly separated from her 12-year-old son while he stays with his father in Brooklyn, she said.
“I just want to get back into my place as soon as I can so I can give my kids somewhere that’s stable and not be bounced from place to place,” she said. “But Chestnut Holdings has been stalling.”
Dunbar and two other tenants say they fear the property owners are waging a war of attrition, waiting the renters out until they give up, move on and forfeit the apartments. The landlord’s history gives them reason for concern: Weiner, who owns one of the largest portfolios of rent-stabilized apartments in the Bronx, evicted more tenants than all but six other property owners in the city in 2019, according to the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.
The Grand Concourse building has 111 rent-regulated units, including the nine affected apartments. New York’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 limits the amount that landlords can raise rents after completing an individual apartment improvement (IAI), but the property owner does not need the tenant to sign off on the renovations if the unit is vacant.
“I think it’s so unfair,” said third-floor tenant Mary Avery, 69. “I’ve been there almost 40 years, it’s home to me.”
Avery said she stayed in Pennsylvania with her daughter for a year, forgoing medical appointments in the Bronx, until Chestnut agreed to temporarily rent her a fifth-floor unit in another nearby building. She said the apartment is nice, but the elevators frequently malfunction and the neighborhood is unsafe. Still, she said she’s glad to be near her doctors again.
The property owners agreed to a stipulation stating that they would not seek an IAI as long as Avery has a claim to the Grand Concourse apartment.
Chestnut and its attorneys did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In court filings, they have given various justifications for the delays.
“It would be remiss not to point out that this fire and subsequent proceeding all occurred during the very height of the pandemic,” they wrote in documents filed in November. “The roof of the building melted because of the severity of the fire. Four people lost their lives. These are not violations that contemplate a little spackling and plaster.”
In the course of assessing the damages, inspectors discovered asbestos in the ceiling, they added. “It is very likely that the asbestos remediation will not be complete until early 2022 given that it is going to take approximately one month per apartment that was affected, 15 in total,” they continued.
The tenants’ lawyers, from the organization Mobilization for Justice, say the landlord hasn’t produced specific information to back up those “fluffy” assertions, or a number of other reasons for delay raised in court.
Chestnut “cited to the loss of life, the fire marshal’s investigation, its insurer’s investigation and the pandemic as impediments to commencing reconstruction,” MFJ Supervising Attorney Rochelle Watson wrote in court documents last December. “However, Respondent produced no affidavits or documentation evidencing how any of these factors were related to its failure to commence work to restore the apartments.”
They still have not provided specific information about the extent of the asbestos either, the attorneys said. “Instead, the statement as to the asbestos finding is completely uncorroborated and magically appears out of thin air,” Watson wrote in December.
An engineering firm hired by Chestnut has submitted a pro forma “Asbestos Abatement Protocol” document to the insurance company, which describes rules for wearing protective clothing and posting signs about the asbestos. That document was included in court papers, but Chestnut has not yet submitted information about just how much asbestos there is. The engineer, from the firm H2M Architects + Engineers, did not respond to a phone call.
And, despite citing the complications of the pandemic, Chestnut filed applications for major projects in at least 31 of its buildings last year, including gut renovations in two other apartments inside 1560 Grand Concourse, the MFJ attorneys added in court papers.
“From the commencement of the court proceedings, the landlord has shown no compassion for the plight of the tenants and zero urgency to correct the conditions in the vacated apartments. As a result, many of the tenants believe that the landlord is attempting to use dilatory tactics to frustrate them from returning to their homes,” MFJ said in a statement.
The aftermath of a deadly fire
The three-alarm fire began in unit 603, on the top floor of the six-story building at 1560 Grand Concourse. The 118-unit property is less than a block from Bronx Healthcare System, the medical facility formerly known as Bronx-Lebanon, where Avery’s doctors are located.
Some 140 firefighters converged on the building as the blaze grew around 7:20 p.m. on March 30, 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
Four women died as smoke consumed their apartments. Another was injured. The firefighters doused the flames with their firehoses, saturating the ceiling above other units, including the home of 90-year-old Edith Thompson.
Thompson had lived in the apartment for 45 years. The night of the fire, she was able to make it to an elevator on the other side of the building after people outside alerted her, said her daughter Cynthia Hammond. Water sprayed by FDNY firefighters caused the ceiling to cave in in several rooms, prompting a Department of Buildings (DOB) vacate order, so Thompson moved in with Hammond in a New Jersey suburb.
She spent the next year hoping to return to the place she called home since the mid-70s, Hammond said.
“It was just a horrible situation,” Hammond said. “My mom was like, ‘When can I come back home?’ I’m quite sure she was depressed. She liked staying here but there’s nothing like being home.”
Thompson died in March, without ever returning to the apartment, or getting a satisfactory answer from the property owners. Another daughter, who lived with her since 2009, is now attempting to secure legal tenancy in the unit.
“What is the hold up?” Hammond said. “It was excuse after excuse.”
The DOB issued vacate orders on the nine damaged units following the fire but does not yet know when the owner will complete the necessary repairs. A DOB spokesperson said asbestos abatement is underway in the building and that the agency has reached out to the engineer to find out how long the work will take.
The landlords did complete temporary roof repairs by Oct. 20, 2020 and filed an application to fully repair the roof and the fire-damaged apartments in December 2020, DOB said.
The 1560 Grand Concourse tenants aren’t the only New Yorkers fighting to recover their homes following a disaster.
More than 60 Jackson Heights tenants displaced by an April fire have sued their landlord and management company to hasten renovations. An untold number of other tenants experienced damage to their homes following flooding from Hurricane Ida earlier this month, with just over 270 families moving into temporary city shelters following the storm; the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has approved payments totaling $37 million to more than 8,200 New Yorkers. The city and state will make another $27 million available to undocumented immigrants affected by the flooding but who do not qualify for FEMA relief, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.
But the relief funding and the legal challenges are just early phases in what can turn out to be years-long struggles.
The parties are due back in court Thursday, after Bronx Housing Court Judge Howard Baum ordered the landlords to allow the tenants, their attorneys and their inspectors to enter the apartments and assess the damages last month. Baum also instructed the landlords to turn over documents about their insurance reimbursements and the asbestos work.
The process will continue to drag on, but Dunbar, the Bronx nurse, said she has no intention of giving up.
She said she already had to battle to win the right to the two-bedroom apartment after first moving in in 2015 to care for her grandmother. When her grandmother got sick and later died, Dunbar stayed in place, finally winning a three-year legal dispute for a lease in January 2020.
She said she returned the signed lease just a week before the fire displaced her and her two children.
“I’ve just been waiting to get back into my place,” she said.