Editor's Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May edition of the Tremont Tribune.
|A fire at 2321 Prospect Ave. killed
three people in April (Photo by David Greene)
Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council announced yesterday that the city will be taking a new, more aggressive approach in identifying and inspecting apartment buildings suspected of being divided illegally.
At the end of April, a fire tore through an apartment building in Belmont and killed three family members who had been living there-Christina Garcia, 43, Juan Lopez, 36, and their 12-year-old son Christian Garcia.
The early morning blaze broke out on the top floor of a multi-family building at 2321 Prospect Ave., a space that had been subdivided into several rooms using partitions, according to FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer.
The tragedy has shined a spotlight on the proliferation of dangerous housing conditions in the Bronx, and across the city. Experts and elected officials say practices like illegal divisions, erected by both tenants and landlords alike, are frighteningly common and growing in number.
Sally Dunford, of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, called the problem “endemic.”
She described some of what she’s seen in the community in recent years: already small apartments portioned off into even smaller ones, blocking access to the fire escape or stationed dangerously close to the building’s heating source; five people living in a basement with no bathroom or kitchen; an elderly couple living in a closet; tenants moving back into a property immediately after the city ordered them to vacate.
“It’s just scary,” Dunford said.
“Illegal subdivisions are a major problem because they make it difficult for people to escape a fire, for firefighters to find and extinguish a fire, and can also trap firefighters in a burning building,” Dwyer said in e-mail.
Dunford said that problem has been exacerbated by the city’s dwindling affordable housing stock, making tenants are more likely to squeeze into a crowded, chopped-up apartment to save a buck.
“People are more willing to do than to go to a shelter,” she said.
Landlords, meanwhile, who are struggling to make mortgage payments on the city’s ever-growing number of financially unstable properties can collect more rents if they can fit more tenants into a given space—even if it’s a fire hazard.
“People who are going under are much more likely to do stupid things,” Dunford explained.
The last known owner of the Prospect Avenue building where the fire took place, a used car salesman named Domingo Cedano, told the New York Times that he’d lost the building to foreclosure years ago.
Records listed on the Department of Buildings (DOB) website show that the city received several complaints about the property over the last few years, but that inspectors were unable to access the apartments to follow up on them.
A bill sponsored by Bronx Councilman Oliver Koppell would force the DOB to seek a warrant to gain access to properties in instances where inspectors are turned away, or fail to gain entry, more than twice.
“I was shocked to find out this city practice,” Koppell said, of closing complaint cases after the two failed attempts. “It seemed to me to be completely outrageous, and irrational. They’ve got to try to pursue it.”
In yesterday's announcement, the Mayor described the city's “new approach,” wherein Fire Department officials will team up with Buildings inspectors to investigate apartments deemed “high risk.” If they can't gain access to the building, the inspectors will seek an access warrant if there is “sufficient evidence” of illegal subdivisions, a press release said.