Seven months after Bushwick fire, tenants tally to oust ‘negligent’ landlord, get back home

bushwick fire tenants
Seven months after a fire displaced tenants at 236 Montrose Avenue in Bushwick, they’re rallying against their “negligent” landlord in an effort to force her to fix up the units.
Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

On August 12, 2022, Mercedes Toribio woke up early to feed her elderly mother and was hit by the smell of smoke in her Bushwick apartment. She immediately got her mother out of bed and onto the street and called 911. She then frantically alerted her neighbors to get them out of the building, she said.

The families that lived in the building’s six apartments watched as the two upper floors of the building were engulfed in flames.

Also on the sidewalk watching the fire was landlord Madeline Albert, who lived nearby and whose son lived in the building, Toribio told Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication Brownstoner through a translator. Although she was standing near the devastated tenants, Toribio said Albert didn’t ask any of them if they were OK.

fire damage at bushwick apartment building
The landlord was neglecting tenants and their units long before the fire broke out, residents said at Monday’s rally. Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

Tenants and their supporters, including Communities Resist, St. Nick’s Alliance, United Neighbors Organization, and representatives for local elected officials, gathered outside the charred house at 236 Montrose Avenue on Monday, seven months after the fire. The group was demanding Albert take action to repair the house so the tenants can get back to their apartments, or that she be replaced by the courts through the city’s 7A program, which appoints an administrator to take over ownership of a dangerous building to ensure repairs are made.

Albert, they said, has continued a pattern of alleged negligence and harassment that started well before the fire by not returning calls, refusing to fix the property, and letting it fall into disrepair in hopes the rent-stabilized tenants will leave so she can flip the building. They allege she wants the city’s Department of Buildings to issue a demolition order so she can sell the building she bought in 1983 and cash out.

Many of the families that were living in 236 Montrose Avenue prior to the fire, who now all live in Red Cross shelters, had been there for more than a decade. Some had been there since the ’80s. All were rent stabilized and at least three of the units paid between $597 and $1,150 per month, according to a lawsuit filed against Albert by three tenants including Toribio.

In recent years, they allege, Albert has been trying to push them out by refusing to maintain the three-story walkup and leaving them in unsafe conditions. Currently, there are 21 open violations on the property, according to NYC’s Housing Preservation and Development.

Iris Nieves, who has lived in the building for 36 years, told the small crowd the landlord had tried to get her out of the apartment five years ago, but lost in court. Now, she said, despite having lost everything in the fire, she still considered the apartment her home and wanted nothing more than to get back inside.

“That is the only thing I want. I want my apartment back. All my kids were born here, my kids are waiting for the apartment. I need the landlord to fix the apartment,” she said.

Jorge Urgiles, who has lived in the building since 2004, asked why the neighboring building, which was also damaged in the fire, has already been repaired, while the tenants at 236 Montrose Avenue were left in the dark. He vowed to keep fighting until his and the other tenants’ units are fixed.

Nieves, Urgiles, and Toribio allege in the lawsuit that they experienced “repeated short-circuits of their electrical systems whenever they plugged in more than one appliance at a time over the past several years, if not longer,” and repeatedly made complaints to Albert about the issues, as well as reporting them to 311.

After such an outage, Albert allegedly set up a generator in the backyard of the property on the evening of August 11, 2022, the lawsuit says. Around 7:15 am on August 12, a three-alarm fire broke out. NYC’s Department of Buildings subsequently issued a number of violations and a full vacate order, and the tenants have not been able to re-enter the building and see their apartments since.

The lawsuit alleges HPD hasn’t issued adequate violations for the fire damage, and has declined to penalize Albert for failing to correct any of the existing violations within the specified timeframe.

“Respondent’s failure to correct the violations and conditions, as well as their reckless disregard for tenants’s health and safety in failing to properly address urgent electrical issues in the subject building, is intended to cause petitioners to vacate their apartments or to surrender or waive their rights and rent-stabilized tenancies, and constitutes repeated interruptions or discontinuances of essential services of such significance as to substantially impair the habitability of their apartments, thus constituting harassment…” the lawsuit reads.

woman holding rally sign
Iris Nieves has lived in the building for 36 years. Her mother passed away not long after the family moved to a shelter after the fire. Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

It calls for Michael Rochford, the executive director of St. Nick’s Alliance, to be instituted as 7A administrator to take charge of the property and “collect the rents from the tenants therein, and deposit and use those rents to repair all existing violations…as well as repair the damage from the August 12, 2022 fire.”

The tenants are also asking Albert for relocation expenses while repairs are made because “such relocation will be entirely due to the neglect, mismanagement, and harassment of respondents,” the lawsuit alleges.

Kelsey Feehan, an attorney with Communities Resist which is representing the tenants, said unfortunately the situation was not an isolated incident, but rather “part of a pattern where through long-term neglect dangerous building fires are allowed to happen.”

“When tenants are displaced because it’s no longer safe to live in those buildings, the landlords can capitalize on those losses.”

She called on DOB to stop letting Albert “exploit processes designed to keep the people of New York safe,” and warned Albert that if she didn’t make repairs “then we will get a city appointed administrator to make them for you. Our clients know their rights and are going to fight for them.”

“When this fire destroyed their belongings, injured them, took everything they had, they knew that in rebuilding their lives part of that would be returning to this home,” Feehan said.

“Now [Albert] is not only failing to make repairs so that these tenants can return to their homes, but she’s avoiding the tenants, not returning their phone calls and exploiting processes put in place by the city that are designed to keep tenants safe and trying to sell the building out from under them. She’s even shared their private contact information with potential buyers instead of doing repairs so that they can return to their homes.”

Feehan said Communities Resist and the tenants were trying to communicate with DOB after hearing the agency might demolish the building, but they had not heard back. A demolition order, she said, would be music to the landlord’s ears. “If she can delay long enough to ignore the tenants long enough, then the Department of Buildings will do the dirty work for her and demolish the building so someone can capitalize on their misfortune.”

Rolando Guzman, the director of community preservation at St. Nick’s Alliance, which had been helping the tenants since the fire, reiterated that the fire was not an isolated occurrence.

“This is happening a lot in our community, and we all know that a vacate order is a gift for a landlord, because the landlords think that tenants are going to give up and there is an empty building they can speculate about, and that’s what is happening in this building already, the landlord’s trying to flip the property and have a higher profit.”

However, he said, the tenants at 236 Montrose Avenue won’t back down, and added the community is behind them.

“This is not just this building; our community, North Brooklyn, is together here,” he said. “And we’re gonna fight until the city of New York comes and fixes this building and these tenants can come back to this building.”

A rep for DOB told said the building had been structurally compromised in the fire and DOB engineers determined it is no longer safe to occupy.

fire damaged bushwick building
City inspectors determined the building is not structurally safe, and has begun legal action against the landlord. Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

The rep said the building owner had also received a violation in October 2022 for failing to submit an “acceptable inspection report for the structurally compromised building.” DOB has since launched an Unsafe Buildings court proceeding against the building and if Albert does not complete stabilizing work and repair the building it is possible the city could rule through the court proceeding to demolish the building.

“There is currently no plan for demolition of the building, nor is the city seeking an order to demo, but if the building owner does not take appropriate action, and the fire-damaged building deteriorates further and is no longer structurally stable, this could potentially occur,” he said.

An application to stabilize the building was filed with DOB earlier this month, which has been approved by the agency, but to date the permits had not been pulled, the agency rep said. The application lists Matthew Ahdoot of United Developers LLC as the building owner, signaling Albert’s possible intention of selling the building. According to city records, Albert currently remains the building owner.

The job description says the permit “is for shoring and stabilizing existing structure. No change in use, egress or occupancy.”

Brownstoner attempted to reach Albert and Ahdoot, but was unsuccessful.

The case is scheduled for a hearing in Brooklyn Housing Court on Monday, March 27.

This story first ran on Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner