‘I want to make sure we don’t go up in flames’: PLG tenants demand improvements after string of fires

protesters at 80 clarkson avenue in prospect lefferts gardens
Protesters called on management to make repairs after recurring fires caused temporary displacements and health concerns.
Photo by Jada Camille

Tenants of a Flatbush apartment building are fed up with the state of their building after a fire destroyed a number of units last year. 

Residents of 80 Clarkson Ave. and members of the Flatbush Tenants Coalition rallied outside the building on Aug. 1, urging management to fix long standing issues they say led the catastrophic blaze.

Cynthia Thomas, a resident of the location since 1990, said the first fire broke out in 2012 in an apartment just below hers.

The latest blaze in December of 2022 was so intense the Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued a vacate order for 13 apartments while the repairs took place.

fire damage at 80 clarkson avenue in prospect lefferts gardens
The damage from the December 2022 fire was so intense that 13 apartments had to be vacated. File photo by Paul Frangipane

According to ralliers, those tenants still have not been cleared to enter their former apartments nor have they gotten their belongings. 

Corazon Valiente, a resident at 80 Clarkson, claimed neighbors have always experienced faulty electricity including sparks from outlets and plugs overheating or melting. Valiente asked management to step up and address the building’s concerns and ensure proper repairs.

“Where are the belongings of the 13 families? Why has it been so difficult for them to get confirmation on their stuff,” he said.

At the protest, attendees addressed five demands: immediate installation of functioning smoke alarms and detectors building wide, licensed electrician inspection, repairs on faulty wiring, functioning breaker boxes and improved communication for the families still awaiting repairs. 

Carol Widom, a tenant leader with the FTC, called these request simple rights that all Brooklynites should have access to.

“They’re not asking for a lot in this day and age. They’re not asking to become millionaires and billionaires. They’re asking for basic human rights,” Widom said. “I’m totally in support of their demands and for housing that’s affordable to working people in Brooklyn.”

Department of Buildings and HPD said they have been working with the tenants since the large fire broke out. DOB forensic engineers ordered the building owner to hire a privately contracted professional engineer  to conduct a full evaluation of the damaged structure. The department recently approved the engineers application for repair work.

Engineers are still working with the landlord to provide an accurate timeline for the families, according to a DOB spokesperson.

“Following a fire, the safety of the impacted tenants is paramount. In cases where tenants are not permitted to return to their homes because have been rendered unsafe to occupy, the building owner is required to make the necessary repairs to enable the return of the displaced residents,” the spokesperson said.  Building owners have a legal responsibility to keep their properties in a safe condition and to provide a secure home for their tenants.”


Ongoing fires

According to Thomas, the fire in 2012 temporarily forced her and her family out of their home and the majority of their furniture had to be thrown out. 

“I had nothing for a year. Nobody came to provide services for me. I didn’t get furniture. I had to use an old mattress. I never got anything back from [the fire],” she said.

Thomas also detailed other fires that took place after the 2012 inferno including one on the first floor of the building and one in a new apartment near the elevator. 

80 Clarkson Avenue has experienced a string of fires
Tenants say they have long faced dangerous conditions that led to multiple fires.Photo by Jada Camille

Prior to the blaze, Thomas said she noticed odd patches and holes near her outlets that alluded to shoddy electrical work.

“It petrified me so much that I didn’t let my kids catch wind on why I was always the last to go to sleep. I had to make sure my children were safe sleeping,” Thomas told Brooklyn Paper. “I’m not sure how long I need this apartment. I want to make sure we don’t go up in flames.”

Thomas said she often had to take her children and herself to the hospital with breathing issues that she believes to be connected to unlicensed electric and gas work in the building.

Building history 

There are currently two housing court cases open for the location – a tenant action case and a comprehensive case, which includes the correction of all violations in the building and appropriate civil penalties. 

Outside the pending litigation, the building has 78 open complaints with the city’s Department of Housing Development and Preservation, and and over 500 violations

At the time of the fire last winter, Brian Ritter was listed as the building’s landlord. Ritter made Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ worst landlords list that same year.

Tenants said new management took over about six months ago, which they hope means improvement is on the way. HPD lists Leland Roth as the head officer of the rent stabilized building. 

According to William, a tenant leader with FTC who asked for his last name not to be included, this string of fires could lead to even bigger issues of landlords attempting to push out longtime tenants in order to raise rent prices.

“The landlords are intentionally not fixing the apartments to push people out so they can refurbish those apartments and rent them out to three times the amount,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “They’re manipulating the situation.”