Two young girls who were apparently scalded to death when steam poured from a broken radiator on Wednesday were being sheltered with their parents in a Bronx building owned by Moshe Piller, a notorious landlord who landed on Public Advocate Letitia James's Worst Landlord List in 2015.
Judith Goldiner, an attorney with the Legal Aid society, said that her organization has "a lot of cases" against Piller. "He doesn't make repairs, he sues people for money they don't owe—he's a bad guy," she said. "It takes effort to get on those [worst landlord] lists. There are a lot of bad landlords in NYC, so if you are on that list you are pretty bad."
Reached for comment a spokeswoman for Piller's management company, MP Management, said, "Basically at this point we are not in a position to comment because of an ongoing investigation but our hearts and condolences go out to the family.”
Police responded to 720 Hunts Point Avenue in Hunts Point around 12:20 p.m. on Wednesday. Upon arrival, they discovered Scylee Vayoh Ambrose, 1, and Ibanez Ambrose, 2, unconscious and unresponsive. EMS transported the small children to Lincoln Hospital, where they were pronounced dead. Cause of death is still pending from the medical examiner, but an NYPD spokesman said both children sustained burns and suffered organ failure. He added that the pressure valve on the radiator appears to have come off.
A GoFundMe page, apparently launched by a relative, identifies the girls' parents as Pete and Danielle Ambrose. "Pete and Danielle have had their share of difficulties, but have always done everything they could to provide for their girls," the relative wrote. "Ibanez and Scylee were overwhelmingly loved for the entirely of their short lives."
Five apartments in the 48-unit building, including the Ambroses', were cluster-site housing for homeless families, the Department of Homeless Services confirmed. "We are devastated by this tragedy. We are investigating and taking steps to immediately transfer the four other families being sheltered at this location to another shelter," said DHS Commissioner Steven Banks.
Mayor de Blasio has pledged to phase out the housing model—a Bloomberg legacy that resulted in homeless families being placed in sordid apartments at high cost to the city—by the end of 2018. But cluster sites still have a significant footprint in NYC. According to the city, they housed 11,400 adults and children as of September.
Addressing reporters outside the Ambroses' building on Wednesday, de Blasio called the cluster system "broken," adding that it "represents the worst combination of expensive housing, bad conditions and poor access to services that homeless families need."
"It is unforgivable that the City continues to enter into contracts with providers who do not ensure that these apartments are habitable, and today, we witnessed the lethal consequences of this neglect," Public Advocate James said in a statement Wednesday.
"No funds should be provided to landlords to house homeless families unless full floor-to-ceiling, building-wide inspections are conducted and reveal no hazardous conditions. These inspections must be ongoing and the results made publicly accessible."
The nonprofit homeless-services provider at 720 Hunts Point Avenue, the Bushwick Economic Development Corporation, is cited in a March 2015 Investigation Department report on building and fire safety violations in cluster-site apartments, according to the NY Times. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the deaths.
The Department of Buildings website shows that 720 Hunts Point Avenue has 36 open violations, though a spokesman said the department had "no issues" at the site, clarifying that apartment interiors and radiators are not DOB jurisdiction. Department of Housing Preservation and Development records show 26 open violations at the building; HPD did not immediately comment on the deaths.
The Ambroses' neighbor Keenaja Livingston and other neighbors told the NY Post that they had recently complained about radiator issues throughout the building. "The radiator starts steaming and the walls get wet," Keenaja told the tabloid. "It gets to a point where you can't see anything,'" Livingston said. "You hear 'pop,' [and] the stuff under the radiator explodes."
Goldiner, the Legal Aid attorney, said that she was worried about the other tenants in the building—those who hadn't been relocated by DHS. "The minute those people are out he is going to rent [those apartments] for higher rent to the next poor soul," she predicted. "Who's making sure he's going to fix that radiator? I think it's going to have to be us."
"We are in the preliminary stages of what is a highly active, multi-agency investigation into what happened in this home and whether there's anything that can be done to help prevent such an unspeakable event in the future," Mayor de Blasio stated Wednesday. "Our law enforcement, buildings, fire and social services personnel will not rest until we can answer what has given rise to this heartbreaking incident."
DHS Commissioner Banks will address the deaths in a press briefing at City Hall this afternoon.