A month after a four-alarm fire burned through three apartment buildings on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, displaced tenants are facing a steep climb up a mountain of bureaucracy and an uncertain future as they work to rebuild their lives.
The blaze began inside a two-family home at 137 Kingsland Ave. at about 4 a.m. on Dec. 15, 2023, and quickly spread to the two apartment buildings on either side — leaving all three charred and uninhabitable.
Unable to return to their homes — and unsure if they will ever be able to – some residents of Kingsland Avenue said they are feeling overwhelmed and unsupported as they try to navigate city services and tenants’ rights.
‘Our lives were uprooted in one instant’
Jacqueline Ortiz, who lived at 135 Kingsland Ave. for more than 30 years, said her apartment was completely destroyed by the fire. She and her 18-year-old son, Jayden, have been staying in a shelter in Far Rockaway since December.
“This process has been surreal, to say the least,” she said. “Just feeling how our lives were uprooted in one instant.”
On the night of the fire, Ortiz said she woke up to commotion on the street and saw smoke rising from 137 Kingsland Ave., but didn’t realize how quickly the situation was escalating.
“I literally grabbed a couple of things, put a couple of things on, and thought we were coming back,” she said. “I never thought we were going to be trying to get out with our lives within seven to ten minutes.”
But when Ortiz stepped into Jayden’s room, she felt the heat of the fire and saw the flames creeping into their building. Within minutes, the apartment was filled with thick smoke.
“It was insane, it was like it was happening to somebody else,” Ortiz said. “You really can’t see anything in the smoke. You can’t see in front of your face, the things you think you would do, you don’t do, because panic sets in.”
Ortiz and Jayden rushed out the rear fire escape into the backyard — which is surrounded by the high fences of neighboring buildings. Neighbors from the building that backs up to 135 Kingsland Ave. from Monitor Street put up a ladder and helped the pair climb over the fence and jump into their yard.
Ortiz and Jayden were both briefly hospitalized, Ortiz for smoke inhalation and Jayden for bruises and pain from when he jumped into the neighbor’s yard.
At 139 Kingsland Ave., on the other side of the building where the fire started, 31-year-old Jason Stevens and a friend had just gotten back to his apartment after a night out when the fire began.
Stevens, who moved to the neighborhood from California last fall, said he was half-asleep in his bedroom when he smelled something burning. He had turned the heat on when he got home, he said, and thought that was the source of the odor, so he turned it off and laid back down.
But the smell — like burning plastic – got worse, and Stevens got up to look outside.
“I looked out my window, and there’s apartments across with floor-to-ceiling windows, and in that reflection I saw huge flames coming from next door,” he said.
Stevens called 911 — his call was the first to get through to the department, he said — and grabbed a few essentials as smoke started to fill the room. The smoke alarms didn’t start going off until he and his friend were already running down the stairs and out of the building, he said.
Dealing with the aftermath
In the chaos after the fire, it wasn’t clear that everyone had escaped, or that many of the apartments had been completely destroyed. Stevens wasn’t allowed back into his apartment until days after the fire, he said.
When he finally stepped back inside, he realized the unit was completely devastated.
“There’s not even a sign of a bed or a desk in there, or any pieces of anything,” he said. “There was nothing that you could take. It was just ashes and pieces of things. I’m just lucky to be alive …. if I hadn’t gotten out of my room, I would have died.”
When Ortiz returned to her building, she found her neighbor – whose door she had banged on as she escaped the building — standing in the backyard, surveying the damage.
“It was just a surreal moment to stand there and cry and hold him, because I was just so worried about him,” she said. “But just to be able to see him and understand fully that every single person made it out alive was a miracle.”
Ortiz, Stevens, and more than a dozen other tenants accepted temporary shelter from the Red Cross at a hotel in Sunset Park.
Displaced tenants struggle with city services
Ortiz checked out of the hotel on the third day and headed back to the Red Cross to work on her application for long-term help from the city’s Department of Housing Development and Preservation.
The process was difficult, she said, because many of the documents the department needed — ID cards, birth certificates, and social security cards – burned up in the fire.
“HPD’s Emergency Housing Services team is working around the clock to provide emergency housing to over 1,500 New Yorkers across the city, including those impacted by this fire,” said HPD rep William Fowler. “Our lines remain open to anyone with an active vacate order issued to their home who have nowhere else to go. Those in need of shelter may contact the Emergency Housing Hotline by calling 212-863-7660 and leaving a message.”
Fowler added that while the department does need proof of residence, but is able to use alternative documents like online records or letters from utilities providers when “vital documents” have been destroyed.
After an extra three days at the hotel, Ortiz was placed in the Far Rockaway shelter. She and Jayden sleep there every night and travel back to Williamsburg during the day, Ortiz said, because their community and support systems are still in northern Brooklyn, even if their apartment is gone.
“It’s a little crazy, traveling back and forth with my son,” she said. “My son has autism, so the loss for him .. has been very difficult. There’s obviously some trauma, some PTSD, for both of us, but moreso for him, because he is so fixated on what he lost, and how his life has been changed.”
Because Jayden is over 18, they are not eligible to be placed in a family shelter closer to home. Ortiz plans to ask the city to move them as a reasonable accommodation for Jayden’s autism under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act – but first had to get a new letter from Jayden’s doctor proving his diagnosis, since the old documentation was destroyed.
“Sometimes I just feel like I’m being punished,” Ortiz said. “Again, I’m counting my blessings of course, but … sometimes you feel the system is going to help you and you feel a little at a loss when you hit a roadblock and you don’t know what to do.”
Ortiz and her neighbors have seen an outpouring of support from the community, she said, in the form of donated clothing and toiletries and other resources. She has also been in touch with her landlord, and is waiting to see if the landlord will decide to rebuild — which might mean she would be able to move back in.
In the meantime, Ortiz has been spending her days filling out paperwork, trying to obtain replacement copies of the documents HPD needs, and figuring out her next steps. It hasn’t been easy — she doesn’t have answers for many of the questions HPD has asked, like whether the apartment was rent-stabilized or rent-regulated, and hasn’t been getting much assistance from the city.
“If push comes to shove and nothing else comes of the resources and the help that we’re trying to fight to get, I’ll just have to maybe make other decisions about where our future lies,” Ortiz said. “If it’s even in New York anymore.”
Because she had lived in the unit for so long, rent was affordable, she said. But the cost of living in Williamsburg has skyrocketed since she moved to the nabe, and they can’t afford to get a new place there now.
“I was a stay at home mom, I had a thriving jewelry business working from home, so I lost everything,” she said. “Not just the home, I lost the business.”
Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez, who represents parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick in the City Council, told Brooklyn Paper she doesn’t think the city does enough for fire victims — especially if they don’t have renters insurance.
“We have the Red Cross that provides shelter for a few days, but then it’s really up to the tenant to repair their lives,” she said.
It’s not much easier for building owners, Gutiérrez said. The council member has been in contact with the owner of 135 Kingsland Ave. since the day of the fire, and has been told how difficult it is to coordinate with the Department of Buildings and the Department of Environmental Protection — even for a request as simple as turning the water off.
“These are all things that a responsible landlord wants to get going,” she said. “They want the tenants to get back home.”
Gutiérrez’s district has a particularly high rate of residential fires, she said, and displaced tenants often end up struggling to figure out which city agencies they need to talk to, what rights they have, and how to move forward.
Last year, she released a “Fire Emergency Response Guide” to help guide New Yorkers through the first few days after a fire, and her office can help connect constituents to services — to an extent.
But Gutiérrez said more definitive action is needed — this year, she hopes to introduce a package of bills that would mandate more transparency and communication between city agencies, landlords, and tenants.
“Expecting a New Yorker to know the difference between DOB and HPD — that’s something the city should be figuring out for folks, and expecting them to pile that on to their list of things to do after being fire victims, I think, is excessive,” she said.
She hopes that increased communication would also help keep tenants up-to-date on what their landlord should be doing, and how that affects them.
“I know of instances where people are living either in a shelter or with family for years because they have no idea what’s going on with their building,” she said.
Searching for solutions
By mid-December, Stevens already had his plane tickets to go home to California for the holidays. After the fire, he decided not to return to New York City. Since he’s not dealing with city agencies, Stevens is looking for help elsewhere.
The Red Cross sent him $650 in emergency funds to use to replace some of his belongings, and once he was back in California, he — like many other tenants – started a GoFundMe.
“I definitely don’t know if I’ll be moving back to New York anytime this year, we’ll see,” he said. “I’m just rebuilding my life, everything I lost.”
Stevens did not have renters insurance — and neither did any of the other residents at 139 Kingsland Ave., he said. They quickly realized that without insurance, their options after a fire were extremely limited.
He called their property management company the day of the fire, and emailed them asking if they could offer any assistance in the days after.
“They sent me an email basically saying ‘Your property loss is not our problem, you need to find somewhere to live, reach out to the Red Cross if you need anything.’ Super unhelpful,” Stevens said.
To get their security deposit and half of December’s rent back, Stevens and his roommate — who had already left Brooklyn for the holidays when the fire occurred — would have to sign a document that states they won’t re-enter the apartment, he said, and his roommate wanted to see the apartment first.
“With no renter’s insurance, I just want to know what our options are, and what we can do moving forward,” Stevens said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this, I don’t know anyone close to me who has either. We lost literally everything. It just doesn’t seem promising right now.”
Edward J. Cuccia, a lawyer who specializes in landlord and housing issues, said that especially without renters insurance, tenants don’t have a lot of rights after a fire.
“Usually, in most leases, it says that if the building is destroyed, the lease terminates,” he said. “You know, if an act of God comes, you as the tenant are not responsible to pay rent, and me as the landlord is not responsible to give you a space because it’s not my fault God came and blew the place up.”
However, if the landlords decide to rebuild, the tenants could argue that they have the right to move back in at their old rents, he said. In some cases, tenants can look to sue the owner of the building where the fire began — depending on the cause.
One big question
There is one big question looming over the tenants and the three burned-out buildings on Kingsland Avenue – how did the fire start, and who, if anyone, can be held responsible?
After an investigation, the FDNY determined that the fire was an accident, caused by food left on the stove at the first floor of 137 Kingsland Ave. — which appeared to be inhabited by the owner of the building, Tadeusz Kurdziel.
At the time of the fire, Kurdziel was facing foreclosure after taking out a reverse mortgage on the building. Brooklyn Paper has been unable to contact Kurdziel.
Multiple tenants said a neighbor’s Ring doorbell camera had captured video that appeared to show Kurdziel walking in and out of the building after the fire started, though Brooklyn Paper was unable to verify the footage.
Ortiz said she was not looking to assign blame for the fire — but wanted to understand why the night played out the way it did.
“You want to know why it took somebody over ten minutes to think that other people were in danger,” she said. “How he handled things really, maybe lost us the precious time to be able to stop [the fire,] or at least have it not go as bad.”
Tenants spotted a Joseph Myers Fire Investigations, LLC, truck outside the building in early January. Reached by phone, representative for the company told Brooklyn Paper they were still working to schedule an inspection of the property.
“I worry about the future, about what’s going to happen,” Ortiz said. “I’ve maintained an apartment for 30-plus years, and I’ve done a pretty good job at supporting my kids, and doing well for my kids. Not knowing what’s going to happen now … the uncertainty is overwhelming.”
— Update 1/25/24, 12:03 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.