Two fires broke out at Fulton Park Plaza in Bed-Stuy during the first weekend of June, less than a week after the affordable housing complex's new owners fired nine union maintenance workers and allegedly allowed the four-building complex to pile up with trash.
"In the last week and a half, we've had garbage everywhere, that led to two back-to-back fires," said resident Janice Lloyd at an emergency tenant association meeting last Thursday. "It's important that we pick up for ourselves. I can't stress that enough."
Some tenants say they've been subjected to maintenance issues for years, including dark stairwells, broken elevators, and dog feces in the hallways. Gina Parham, a member of the tenant association, said, "When you walk through this building, it's completely disgusting. It has been like this for 20 years."
But they insist Bushburg Properties, which bought the property for $38 million this March, has broken its promise to improve the building, and allowed conditions to deteriorate even further. “They promised us the world,” Parham said.
The fires were discovered on Saturday morning, June 6th, in the second floor hallway of 1711 Fulton Street, and Sunday evening, June 7th, on the sixth floor hallway of 110 Chauncey Street. Patricia Aiken, who has lived at 1711 Fulton for five years, said of the Sunday fire, "It was bad. A lot of people went to the hospital."
Paulette Herring has lived at 120 Chauncey Street for six years. She was on the sixth floor at about 7 p.m. last Sunday night, returning from a friend's apartment. "As I was walking, the smoke circulated, and it got real thick," she said. "I couldn't get back to my apartment. Being as the elevator wasn't working at the time, I was stuck on the sixth floor and inhaling a lot of smoke." After about 45 minutes, she said, firemen reached her and helped her down the stairs. Herring, who has bronchitis, was taken to Interfaith Medical Center where she was treated for smoke inhalation.
An FDNY spokesman says both fires originated from mattresses that were left in hallways, and both were "all hands on deck," meaning 12 fire trucks each. Six minor injuries were reported on Sunday.
The causes of the fires have not been determined. "We're not investigating this as any sort of chronic case or pattern," the FDNY spokesman said. However, "These rubbish-in-the-hallways [fires] are very difficult to investigate." He also said that, inside both buildings, "There seems to be a chronic rubbish issue in the hallways."
Betty Neuman, an elderly tenant, lives on the fourth floor of 1711 Fulton. She relies on an oxygen tank. Since the Saturday fire, the elevator in her building has been out, and she says she has to walk around the perimeter of the complex to another elevator at 94 Chauncey Street. "It's hard for me to walk, because of my breathing," she said. Last week, we observed boarded-up elevator shafts at both fire sites, suggesting two inoperable elevators.
One tenant, who asked not be named because she works for the NYPD, said, "It was good [under the old maintenance]." She added, "I've been here 18 years and nothing ever caught fire. Now we have fires."
Aiken was upset about non-union maintenance crews that tenants say have been hired to replace the old workers. "We don't know these people," she said. "We've never had garbage like this."
But Herring places some blame on her fellow tenants for leaving mattresses in the hallway in the first place. "You should not set furniture in the hallway, knowing that the elevator is not working.... At the end of the day, the tenants have to be aware," she said, adding that management helped her ventilate her smoky apartment on Tuesday. "They responded mighty quickly. I have to give credit where credit is due."
Bushburg representative Gabriel Rodriguez told us in April that the company has plans to renovate the building, and is in talks with architects. "We know what we're doing here," Rodriguez said. "We're turning these properties around, and we're deeply invested in them."
The Real Deal reports that Fulton Park Plaza's Mitchell-Lama obligations expire later this year, meaning there will be no legal obligation to keep the units affordable. Underlying the maintenance issues—the fires, the garbage, and the broken elevators—is a fear, expressed frequently at Thursday's meeting, that many of the tenants won't be able to afford to stay.
Building sources have reportedly denied that the affordable housing program will be cut off.
"They say we're going to be okay, but until when?" Lloyd said. Adding, "It's been changing in this neighborhood. This is prime real-estate here." In March, the Daily News reported that the median price for a Bed-Stuy brownstone hit $1.47 million in the fourth quarter of 2014, up 47% from the year previous. The current median price for a vacant parcel is over $808,000 in the neighborhood, up from $235,800 in 2013.
In the meantime, on a tenant-led tour of the houses last Tuesday, we observed, in addition to fire damage, flies in first-floor hallways, and many dark stairwells that reeked of trash. The Chauncey Street sidewalk that runs along the back of the buildings was piled high with trash two and three bags deep.
"I'm sad, because we thought Bushburg was going to be a savior," Lloyd said.
On June 5th, the day before the first fire broke out, Fulton Park Plaza's tenant association sent a formal invitation to Bushburg's management company, Vertices Holding Company LLC, to attend the next tenant meeting on June 25th. If they don't show, the letter states, "We will be forced to take further action."
Bushburg Properties did not respond to multiple requests for comment. SEIU 32BJ is organizing a joint tenant and maintenance rally this evening at 5:30 p.m., outside of 1711 Fulton Street.
(Additional reporting by Joanna Purpich.)