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More than 100 tenants still wait to go home after 2012 fire

This story was first published on the New York Daily News

By Marco Poggio

These Wingate tenants were displaced in an instant, but their housing nightmare may never end.

Tenants of a seven-story building at 665 New York Ave. are still displaced more than two years after a fire destroyed their home.

“I feel like I’m homeless,” said Reynold Brown, 66, who lived in the building for 36 years before the blaze interrupted his life and those of his longtime neighbors.

It all unraveled so quickly on the morning of July 26, 2012. That’s when lightning struck the 117-unit building, sparking the fire that devoured the top floor and spread downward.

All of the 40 firefighters and 12 tenants who were injured that morning would
recover, but many of the nearly 120 families forced out remain in tatters.

The building has been kept locked and vacant, virtually untouched since the blaze.

Tenants banded together to sue the landlord, Kings and Queens Holdings, and the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development doubled the effort, filing a second suit to force the building’s restoration and the tenants’ right to re-occupy their rent-stabilized units. Both actions are pending.

The landlord could elect to upgrade the building and have it de-stabilized so the rents could be jacked up — a bitter possibility at a time when the city is struggling to increase its affordable housing stock.

Kings and Queens, which bought the property from the LeFrak Organization for $12 million, in 2007, refused to discuss any plans for the building.

A few days after the fire, when they were allowed an half an hour span to go back into their apartments and retrieve their personal effects, the tenants found a bitter surprise: most of their valuable possessions, including money and jewelry were gone

“We’re currently working through a long, arduous legal process that we don’t control,” said a spokesman for the company, which is based in West New York, N.J. “We cannot do anything until that process is concluded.”

The Department of Buildings confirmed that plans have not been filed for the site.
But the untiring tenants have refused to abandon their hopes of going back. Many are paying the landlord $1 per month to preserve their claim on the leases they held before the fire.

“We are still living in transition,” said Yvette Sarvis, 63, who lost her apartment on the top floor along with all her possessions.

Sarvis has provided leadership, organizing tenants and establishing the group that filed the suit.

She and about 20 of her former neighbors held a vigil on July 26, to commemorate the tragic day their lives changed and to renew a spark of optimism for their future.

The group doesn’t know how many of the former tenants have called it quits and taken a new home. Most of their possessions were ruined or dumped.

Some stayed in temporary shelters and others crashed with relatives, but as time goes on it gets harder to imagine a return. Brown, for one, said he eventually rented a new apartment in Brownsville.

“If I could tell something to the landlord, I would say: ‘Think about the people, do something, work with your tenants,’ ” said Denise Melville, 54, who stayed in shelters until April and now lives in a NYCHA-run complex in Cypress Hills. “But I guess that’s not how the system works.”

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