Two days after fleeing one of the deadliest fires in city history, tenants of the Bronx building are now confronting a pair of grim realities: return to a fire-battered apartment building or remain in shelter, uncertain of what comes next.
As of Tuesday, close to three-quarters of the building’s units were considered safe to inhabit, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Preservation.
But while the building was deemed structurally sound, those who were allowed to go back reported broken windows and soot-covered belongings, along with traumatic memories of Sunday’s destruction.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other tenants remained stuck in hotels, awaiting news about when and if they’ll be able to return to their homes and personal belongings. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Housing and Preservation Department had issued vacate orders for 35 of the building’s 120 units.
At an information kiosk outside the East 181st Street high-rise, Ken Otisi said he learned from a property manager on Monday night that his apartment would be “unlivable” for weeks, if not longer, as a result of severe smoke damage.
Otisi, who’d carried his neighbor’s child down a dozen floors of the smoke-filled building, said he planned to stay in the Red Cross-provided hotel nearby, and was focused on retrieving his personal possessions. Regardless of whether the apartment was cleared, the 34-year-old said he would have no choice but to find a new place to live.
“After you’ve seen what I’ve seen, I can’t [stay there]. Everytime I go to my window I’m going to hear the screams,” he said. “I’ll stay in the hotel as long as I have to.”
But for Otisi, along with a majority of displaced residents at the low- to moderate-income building, securing a new home will involve navigating a tangle of federal, state and city bureaucracies.
Ninety of the building’s 120 units receive Section 8 vouchers, a federal subsidy administered by the state, typically attached to specific apartments. At a press conference on Tuesday, Senator Chuck Schumer called on federal housing officials to immediately issue transferrable vouchers to families.
“We need the feds to work hand-in-glove with the state and city to help make it happen as soon as possible,” he said.
In the meantime, more than 200 building residents have slept in hotels provided by the Red Cross and the building’s owners. At one hotel on Webster Avenue, the building’s large number of Gambian immigrants tried to console one another, even as they received difficult news about friends and family.
“People are getting the news of who is dead, and it happens to be close friends and associates,” Mohamed Trawalley said on Tuesday. “There’s a sad mood here, people are really emotional.”
Trawalley said his family learned their apartment was cleared as safe on Monday. But when they arrived, the smell of smoke was so overpowering that he feared it would trigger his daughter’s asthma. His family ended up returning to the hotel, with plans to try again later this week.
Other residents have come back to similarly difficult conditions. Julia Fowler, a home health aide, said she was relieved to move into her 9th floor apartment on Monday night, only to wake up freezing on Tuesday morning.
“If the heat’s on, it’s not really circulating,” Fowler, a mother of four, said on Tuesday afternoon, as temperatures reached the teens.
Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for the building’s ownership group, said professional cleanup crews were on site to help residents with issues. The building’s windows, which are custom-made, would be fixed by Thursday, she said.
While nearly 150 people were placed in hotel rooms paid for by the building owners, Magee declined to say how long that support would last.
“We are working with the relevant housing agencies to expedite issuing tenant-based vouchers to affected residents,” she said in an email.
The city is also collecting donations to provide financial relief to tenants. On Sunday, Mayor Eric Adams pledged that all tenants, regardless of immigration status, will be able to access the relief — a promise echoed by other city officials as well.
Late Monday night, Tony Johnson, a 64-year-old Army veteran, said he received news that he could return to the apartment of two decades.
“I just came from chemo and was so happy to be able to get into my bed,” he said.
But when he got there, Johnson found his curtains caked with soot and his door in need of a repair. He called his roommate, who said he planned to stay in the hotel for at least a few more days. Then, exhausted, Johnson turned on his air purifier and fell asleep.