Displaced Sunset Park tenants take landlord to court 3 months after fire forced them out of their homes

Sunset Park tenants rally after a fire
Sunset Park tenants rallied at Brooklyn housing court three months after a fire displaced them from their homes.
Photo courtesy of Jared Watson

Sunset Park tenants who have been displaced from their homes for three months after a fire are preparing to take their idle landlord to court, they announced at an Aug. 16 rally at Brooklyn Housing Court. 

According to Jared Watson, a tenant organizer with the Fifth Avenue Committee, residents from the 54th Street building are taking HP Action against the landlord in an effort to speed up the repair process and at the very least make the building safe enough to allow them back inside to grab their personal belongings. Two individuals — Baozhen Lin and Moshe Kraus — are affiliated with the building, according to Who Owns What in NYC, as are two LLCs, but Watson said most tenants are not sure what their landlord’s name is.

When reached by phone for Brooklyn Paper via a phone number provided by tenants, the person who answered confirmed he was the building’s landlord, but declined to comment and did not give his name.

The tenants bring HP Action case against landlord
The tenants are bringing HP Action case against landlord in Housing Court in an effort to get their possessions from the building. Photo courtesy of Jared Watson

“It’s strictly to get a timeline and to open lines of communication between building management and the tenants so that they will have some sense of when [they can] reasonably expect to be back in their homes,” Watson said.

Securing everyone’s belongings is the biggest concern at the moment, he said. While some of the tenants have been let inside their homes during brief stints to grab a few of their personal possessions, others haven’t been allowed back in at all. The few individuals that did get to go inside the building said that “some personal belongings had gone missing,” according to Watson. In June, tenants told Brooklyn Paper children had left their laptops and school books inside and were struggling with their school work. At least one reported wearing the same clothes for days on end.

Wooden slats have caged the building since the fire swept through on May 2, but Watson pointed out that the temporary fixture is not a foolproof solution to keeping potential thieves away, and there is no security inside or outside of the building. The building has a history of Department of Buildings violations, including three active violations filed in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

The neighborhood came out to support their dislocated neighbors and demand action from those in power. Councilmember Alexa Avilés and Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes have been instrumental in getting the residents’ needs met and supporting them in their fight.

exterior of bldg where sunset park tenants were displaced after fire
The exterior of 702 54th Street in Sunset Park after a fire swept through the building in May. Tenants have been displaced since then, and have not been able to go inside to get their belongings, they say.Google Maps

“Our city and state’s lack of infrastructure to relieve families seeking immediate housing support after a fire has left many families confronting a very challenging process of returning to a home. After three months of waiting on the property owner and the city to respond to their requests for repairs and access to the building, the tenants of 702 54th Street have sued the property owner and management,” Mitaynes said. “They are demanding the property management and our city mitigate their displacement from their homes, while ensuring they have a reasonable timeline for repairs until we can return.”

Mitaynes said there has been a pattern of building fires that have displaced low-income families across the city, and specifically called out the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which she said is not prepared to house people suddenly displaced by emergencies like fires.

“Our city is not adequately prepared to address the recent surge of building fires that have impacted and displaced many families across the city. Our state has not invested in creating permanently deeply affordable homes that would have prepared our communities against any form of displacement,” she said.

According to HPD’s website, the department works to conserve affordable housing through preservation projects and development programs. Its Emergency Housing Services (EHS) unit “provides emergency relocation services and rehousing assistance to households who have been displaced from their homes as a result of fires or city-issued vacate orders,” according to the site.

Once the displaced families have reached out to EHS, they are relocated into family centers and single-room-occupancy hotels in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, as stated by the unit.

But, tenants and advocates maintain, it isn’t always that easy since the department doesn’t run any of those shelters itself.

“Since HPD does not operate any emergency shelters or housing for displaced people — in addition to New York’s failure to prioritize creating deeply affordable housing — many families have been systemically left out of obtaining permanent affordable housing in their communities,” Mitaynes said. “Until we can implement dignified solutions for working families in New York, we must ensure that our current institutions diligently work to keep our people whole.”

Watson said even after the difficult few months they have gone through, the families are still looking to move back into the apartment eventually — the building is rent stabilized and many of them have lived there for years.

Organizers also clarified that while the tenants are technically suing management, they are not looking for financial compensation or criminal punishment. A housing court representative said the goal of an HP Action case is typically to just have a demand — like timely repairs — met, or to stop a pattern of behavior the landlord has shown.

HPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.