A group of Brooklyn families are in housing limbo after a four-alarm fire tore through their building last month.
Thirteen families were displaced from their homes at 80 Clarkson Ave. in Flatbush, Brooklyn after the Dec. 16 fire left their apartments uninhabitable. For nearly a month, the displaced tenants have been struggling to find stable housing as their apartments were being repaired.
“As of today I have nowhere to go. I think they should place me back in the hotel,” said 80-year-old Clarissa Young, who lived in the building for over 40 years and lost virtually everything in the fire. “I am a fire victim and I think they should give me better service for me.”
Young’s sixth-floor apartment was among the worst in damages suffered during the fire. In the immediate aftermath, residents of the building, including Young, were placed in a hotel by the American Red Cross, and later moved to a different one provided by the building's landlord until Jan. 16. But as of Tuesday, they were on their own.
According to the FDNY, the fire was “accidental, caused by electrical building wiring in the top floor ceiling.” But tenants said they had also reported a litany of repair issues in the building, including electrical issues, even before the fire.
The building’s landlord, Brian Ritter, was listed as second on the public advocate’s landlord watchlist, which identifies “which residential property owners consistently flout City laws intended to protect the rights and safety of tenants.” The building has 426 violations that remain open, according to HPD.
“Landlords have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and Code-compliant place to call home for their tenants,” HPD and the Department of Buildings told Gothamist in a joint statement. “We have ordered the landlords at 80 Clarkson to make repairs to the fire-damaged wing of the building, and will continue to monitor those repairs and all open violations until the tenants can return home.”
A spokesperson for HPD continued, “All displaced tenants who sought shelter in a hotel provided by the American Red Cross were offered emergency shelter though HPD’s Emergency Housing Services at the beginning and end of their initial hotel stay. HPD emergency shelter remains available to anyone in need.”
Ritter could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. In a statement, a spokesperson for the building's management said its priority was to get tenants back into their homes as quickly as possible.
"To that end, we are working diligently with the New York City Department of Buildings, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and other relevant agencies to complete all necessary repairs and secure approvals to lift the vacate orders," said Megan Kivlehan, managing director of public reltaions agency ICR on behalf of the building. "To help ease the transition, we provided hotel stays and daily stipends to cover expenses to the residents for 30 days, and we will continue to keep them informed as we have updates to share regarding the timeline for return.”
Nigel Gall, 28, said his parents who live in the building have also been struggling to find stable housing in the aftermath of the fire. For them, it took weeks for HPD to place a vacate order on their apartment, which they needed in order to access certain emergency resources. Gall said he spent the weeks after the fire trying to reach out to local elected leaders and organizations for help.
“We didn’t have a holiday pretty much,” Gall said. “We were displaced. We were homeless if you want to use the actual terms.”
Advocates at the Flatbush Tenant Coalition and tenants walked reporters and representatives of local elected officials through the building on Tuesday. Crews were working on Young’s apartment, replacing the floor and ceilings.
“When a landlord allows that many repairs to go undone, we already know kind of how they’re going to operate if something like this happens in the building,” said Krysten Washington, a community organizer with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition.
Lindsay L. Cowen works as a senior staff attorney in the Tenants Rights Coalition at Brooklyn Legal Services. She said the tenants’ experiences are typical when it comes to fire displacement.
“The fact is that it’s not made clear to them by the city by HPD, what to do,” she said. “And that’s part of the chaos that I think everyone has seen today, is that there are all these different city agencies, different laws, so much going on.”
A previous version of this story misstated who provided displaced residents a second hotel stay. It was the building's landlord. This story has also been updated to include additional comment from HPD and building management.