Like many residents who fled the smoke-filled stairwells of the Twin Parks apartment complex last month, Tatiana Strahn has vowed to never again set foot in her former Bronx home.
She said the fire, which killed 17 of her neighbors, has left her four-year-old daughter traumatized. Her son’s daycare teacher recently called to say the two-year-old hasn’t been himself lately. Neither of them are adjusting to the sparse hotel where they are staying on Webster Avenue.
But when Strahn, a 28-year-old single mother, met last week with a consultant hired by the state to help relocate the Twin Parks survivors, she says she left feeling “shocked and confused.”
While her previous housing voucher covered most of the rent in the three-bedroom apartment where she’d lived since she was 14, she was told that her new voucher would only apply to a two-bedroom apartment.
“Each of my kids were used to having their own space,” she said. “Their home has been taken from them, their sense of stability has been taken from them, and now I’m going to have to force them to readjust again.”
Strahn’s experience is not unique. Despite pledges by local officials and the building’s owners to expedite the relocation process, multiple former Twin Parks tenants report a slew of unexpected obstacles and red tape that have disrupted their search for new affordable housing, with many having no clear sense of where they'll go next. The delay has left residents stuck in temporary hotels for close to a month that some have described as dirty and lacking basic services such as housekeeping — an accusation hotel management disputes.
As of this week, 161 adults and 57 children were still living in the hotels, after a move-out date initially scheduled for next Monday was extended by the building’s owners and the city, which is putting up some of the cost.
“We have no say of where we can go,” Breyanna Reid, a 25-year-old former resident who is trying to find a new home for her partner and 11-month-old son, told WNYC/Gothamist. "It’s like an every night thing, worrying about where we’re going to go after the stay is over ... What happens next?"
The building’s owners said the Twin Parks building is fully functioning, aside from 14 apartments on the floor of the fire that have been vacated. But roughly half of the residents have elected not to return, citing both psychological trauma and the lingering smell of smoke.
As part of its pledge to accelerate the relocation process, the state has contracted with CVR NY, a private consultant that helps administer Section 8 vouchers in the Bronx, to help tenants find new housing.
But residents – roughly three quarters of whom were receiving a Section 8 voucher that was specific to the apartment building – are now confronting a winding regulatory system that requires them to either transfer their vouchers or re-apply for new ones.
In some cases, federal rules have meant that tenants are ineligible for vouchers equal to their previous apartment sizes, requiring them to downsize, according to a spokesperson for the state’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal.
“As we work through each individual case, we are utilizing as much flexibility as we have under federal law to ensure each family is able to obtain safe, decent affordable housing of their choosing as soon as possible,” the spokesperson, Brian Butry, said in a statement.
Even with a properly transferred voucher, recipients of Section 8 vouchers have long faced discrimination by landlords and real estate brokers while attempting to rent apartments in New York City.
Onerous complications within the federal rules, including “cruel” occupancy standards that allot one bedroom per two people, regardless of age, only add to those challenges, says Ellen Davidson, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society. In her view, the simplest solution would be for the building’s owners to offer tenants housing in some of the thousands of affordable units they own across the city.
“The relocation should be relatively simple if the ownership entity lives up to its moral obligation,” she noted.
The building’s owners – Camber Property Group, Belveron Partners, LIHC Investment Group – say they are trying to do that.
"We continue to work around the clock with our property management, social service and relocation assistance teams, along with partners at the City and State, to do everything we can to support and assist Twin Parks North West residents following last month's tragic fire,” said James Yolles, a spokesperson for the building owners.
The group purchased the Twin Parks development in 2019, as part of a wave of investment in affordable housing complexes. In the wake of the fire, the owners said any tenant who did not want to return to the building would be prioritized for placement in their other properties. To date, no families have signed leases at those apartments.
A building spokesperson said property managers were still pre-inspecting the units. He noted that the owners had purchased a printer and hired a notary to help relieve the administrative burden for tenants. The owners have also arranged bus tours of other buildings for tenants, according to management.
City and state officials have also touted a new affordable housing complex in the South Bronx, dubbed La Central, as a possible landing spot for displaced tenants. Three leases have been signed at that building so far, while 70 other families have requested applications, according to a representative for the development.
“After working closely with the City and State to create an expedited relocation process, we expect to have 19 leases signed at La Central by Monday, with 21 more ready to be signed there in the coming week," Yolles said. "As a backup option, we’ve created an expedited process for residents to relocate to one of our Bronx properties or other affordable housing in the borough.”
Reid, who previously shared a Twin Parks apartment with five relatives, says her attempts to move into the building with her 11-month-old son and partner have proved futile because the voucher that previously covered her apartment was under her mother’s name.
“My son and my partner weren’t on the lease, so they’re saying I can’t get my own place,” Reid noted. “They’re giving me the runaround.”
The lack of progress has meant that the displaced tenants are stranded in temporary hotel rooms, most of them at the neighboring Alden and GWB hotels on Webster Avenue.
Residents of both hotels described accommodations that are not cleaned regularly, with garbage strewn in the hallway, discolored water coming out of the pipes, and stained sheets that the hotel has refused to wash.
“[My son] is learning to walk, but he can’t even learn to walk because this hotel is not clean,” Reid said. “We just want our own place.”
After a tenant invited WNYC/Gothamist into the hotel earlier this week, a property manager said reporters were prohibited from entering the premises, adding that the guest would be “in trouble” for violating hotel policy.
In a statement, Harry Patel, the manager of both hotels, said staff were working around the clock to accommodate guests “under what anyone would agree are unusual and trying circumstances.”
He accused guests of having parties that resulted in property destruction and refusing to provide access to their rooms, adding that all guests that wanted housekeeping received it on a daily basis – something that people at both hotels disputed.
“This shit is trash. One out of five stars — I wouldn’t stay here,” Luis Felix, a 23-year-old resident said, pointing to the building, before pausing for a moment. “But I have to stay here, unfortunately.”
This story has been updated with additional information.