‘Positioned to fight:’ Sunset Park tenants displaced by fire rally against landlord

Council Member Alexa Avilés addresses crowd
Councilmember Alexa Avilés rallies with tenants who say they haven’t been let back into their building — not even to collect their belongings — since a fire in May.
Photo by Jada Camille

Residents of a Brooklyn apartment are “positioned to fight” after a fire displaced them more than a month ago — and they say their landlord is reluctant to let them back into their homes for their belongings.

Disgruntled tenants held a rally on Thursday, June 16 outside of a building near 54th Street and Seventh Avenue, where a fire broke out in the ground floor business on May 2. Tenants have yet to be given access to retrieve their property, and last week spoke out against alleged unjust treatment from management.

Since the blaze, residents have been scattered across the Five Boroughs in various hotels and Department of Housing Preservation and Development shelters, according to James Neimeister, communications and organizing manager for Councilmember Alexa Avilés, who represents the area.

At the rally, mothers expressed concern for their children’s learning ability as their school books and laptops were left behind. One father said he’s has had to wear the same clothes to work since he hasn’t been able to get more.

“I want them to repair it faster so we can move back in,” said tenant Jenny Jiang. “Everyone’s living in shelters right now and we have to go find other places to stay and rent is a really big issue for low-income families.”

Another tenant, Tony Chen, said he and his mother have lived in the building for 12 years and have been relocated to a shelter in Harlem. They both have had trouble learning the subway system and adjusting to a different part of town.

“My mom is still trying to go back in to get some of her clothes [and] some of her documents and my computer is still in there,” Chen said.

Mandy Zhang, a tenant who was sleeping in her apartment the morning of the fire, added that the inferno has left a fearful impression on her family. 

“My grandmother was yelling and when I went to her room the smoke was covering everything. I couldn’t find her. I had to rush in there to grab her,” Zhang told the crowd. “After she came home, she [had] flashbacks from the fire. The other day, the hotel [we’re staying at] was testing the fire alarm so it went off and she started crying and panicking.”

On top of trauma, many are worried that their belongings are “there for the taking,” said Jenny Zhang, chief of staff for Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, who helped translate for tenants whose first language isn’t English.

The Sunset Park building where a fire broke out on May 2.Google

“They’re worried about the security of the property even though it’s all fenced off, there’s clearly ways to get in,” she said.

Tenants claim building management is only agreeing to let them inside if they sign a document stating that once families came to pick up their items, the landlord has the right to change the locks on their apartments. 

According to Jenny Zhang, some of the residents didn’t understand the document and weren’t clear on what they were signing. Even after some families agreed to the landlord’s stipulations, they were only allowed to go inside for 10 minutes. She also stressed that the fire has put an economic strain on most of the families. 

“Their clothes are all in there and it’s lead to a lot of economic instability because they just feel like they aren’t even prepared for work,” she said.

Jared Watson, a tenant organizer with Neighbors Helping Neighbors, said his biggest frustration has been hearing from residents who are left with nothing to their names. 

“People weren’t home when it happened,” he said. “They had just been left with the clothes on their back and what the Council office has been able to connect them to.”

Local politicians like Avilés and Mitaynes, neighbors and friends have worked closely with the Red Cross and other organizations to help the families through this frustrating time. The city originally offered each family two nights in a hotel but Neimeister said his team fought for more.

“This was 40-plus families, most of whom do not speak English as a first language if at all,” he said. “For like the first week we were just fighting with the city to get them more than two days to stay in this hotel.”

They eventually got an extended 30-day stay and after that, most families were moved to the HPD shelters where they can receive a case worker that will help them get apartment vouchers. According to Neimeister, fires often reveal “systemic problems” within apartment management. 

“Nothing is made easy for the tenants. A lot of people don’t want to give up their home,” he said. “Right now, they’re just positioned to fight.”

Building management could not be reached for comment.