On Dec. 16, a four-alarm fire ripped through an apartment building in Prospects Lefferts Gardens — injuring at least four people, including a firefighter, and leaving 13 families without a place to live. Almost a month later, the building is still in a state of disrepair — and with minimal assistance from the building’s owner or government officials, tenants are desperate for help.
Smoke and debris still fill the apartments
Tenants of 80 Clarkson Avenue and members of the Flatbush Tenants Coalition gathered at the building on Tuesday to as they contemplated their next steps. Construction crews were working in two units on the sixth floor as the group trooped through the halls — and the whole floor still smelled heavily of smoke. Many windows in the building are still boarded up, and some units have been totally gutted — walls and ceilings ripped out and furniture and belongings piled on the floor.
“We can’t live here … it’s hard to breathe in here without a mask,” said tenant Nigel Galt, whose parents have lived in the building for 30 years. “It’s gonna take a long while before this smells like a home, so we don’t to breath that or inhale any of that.”
Many tenants said the building did not have working smoke alarms when the fire broke out — some found out about the fire when they got a notification from the Citizen app. Hundreds of open HPD violations document years of serious issues in the building — including nonfunctional smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, damaged electrical outlets and exposed wiring.
“I could be dead,” said 80-year-old tenant Clarissa Young, who has lived at 80 Clarkson Avenue for 42 years, through tears.
Her grandson saw the smoke from the fire out the window and grabbed her to evacuate, she said. They met firefighters in the building, who brought Young down the stairs in a wheelchair and into am ambulance since she has trouble walking. She ended up being kept in the hospital overnight for monitoring, but was not injured.
Confusion surrounds emergency housing and hotel stays
Galt said he had to start a GoFundMe to pay for his hotel stay after the fire — which ended up costing $2,000. Young and her family moved temporarily into a hotel room. But on Monday, Jan. 16, Young said management declared they would not pay for the hotel room anymore. She stayed at a friend’s place that night.
“As of today I have nowhere to go. I think they should place me back in that hotel because that’s what management is responsible for,” Young said. “I’m a fire victim and I think they should give me better service. I’m so emotional, I can’t live like this. I can’t accept it, I can’t accept, why why? I’ve been here 42 years in this building.”
The American Red Cross was on the scene of the fire that night offering emergency shelter to anyone who needed it, according to an HPD spokesperson, and eight families accepted. Usually, the ARC offers emergency housing for a few days immediately after a fire, but HPD asked to extend the stays of the eight families who accepted the emergency shelter until Jan. 3. In the following days, HPD issued a partial vacate order on the property
Typically, when a vacate order is issued and tenant cannot return to their homes, HPD will reach out to those who accepted help from the Red Cross as their hotel stay ends and offer longer-term emergency housing. In the case of 80 Clarkson Avenue, though, the landlord, Brian Ritter, stepped in to offer to pay for hotels for his tenants. By Dec. 22, all eight families had moved out of the hotel offered by the Red Cross, having either found housing with friends or family or taken Ritter up on his offer. On Jan. 16, Ritter — who was not legally required to offer accommodations — stopped paying for the hotel rooms.
That may have caused some confusion for tenants — who are still eligible for help from HPD. Some tenants have secured their own temporary housing, but others — like Young — still need a place to stay.
“All displaced tenants who sought shelter in a hotel provided by the American Red Cross were offered emergency shelter under HPD’s Emergency Housing Services at the end of their initial hotel stay,” the representative said. “HPD emergency shelter remains available to anyone in need.”
He encouraged any tenants who need help to call the Emergency Housing Services hotline at (212) 863-7660.
The Worst Landlord List
Ritter — one of the worst landlords in the city, according to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — owns at least eight buildings across the city, with five in Brooklyn, and has wracked up over 1,000 open HPD violations across his properties. He purchased 80 Clarkson Avenue in 2015, according to city records, and owns another property – 140 Clarkson Avenue — just a block away.
Ritter could not be reached for comment.
A third tenant who asked to remain anonymous has lived in the building for 13 years and was not directly impacted by the fire — but has been dealing with issues inn the building for years. An electrical fire broke out in her apartment before the pandemic, she said.
“We want [the landlord] to be held accountable … this is just nonsense now,” she said, adding that tenants also deal with persistent heat outages and package thefts — some HPD complaints noted that doors in the building did not close or lock properly.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said. “I don’t want to sleep with my eye open because I’m scared every time I hear an ambulance or a fire truck.”