A Japanese animation short on television recently caught Micha Gerland’s attention as he walked past a store on St. Mark’s Place in New York City’s East Village this week. “I lost everything,” a character cried, lying flat on his back with fists pounding the floor. Gerland, 37, whose building was demolished in the recent Second Ave. gas explosion, said he felt the same way. When your apartment disappears, navigating city agencies and moving forward in life is no simple task.
The three buildings destroyed in the March 26 blast—45 East Seventh St. (119 Second Avenue), 121 Second Ave., and 123 Second Ave.—included 15 apartments. Adjacent buildings also sustained damage and many were ordered vacated. While most tenants buildings have reopened, at press time, five apartments at 125 Second Ave. and two at 41 East Seventh St. were still under vacate orders.
Siphoned gas at a restaurant at 121 Second Ave. may have been to blame for the blast and fire, in which two men died and 19 people were injured. Investigations are currently underway.
“It’s been crazy for tenants after the explosion,” said Wasim Lone, director of housing services at Good Old Lower East Side, a housing and preservation organization. “Even now, it’s very difficult. The vacate order has been lifted, conditions are not really fit, and there is a stench.”
It’s especially fraught for rent-regulated tenants, who had large apartments and paid more affordable rent than their market-rate neighbors. The state Division of Housing and Community Renewal confirmed there were rent-regulated units at 45 East Seventh St. and 125 Second Ave., but did not reveal the exact number of units, citing state privacy laws.
Rights depend on circumstances
Vacated tenants, both rent-regulated and market-rate, could have the right to take legal action against the owner of a standing building to force the landlord to restore habitability.
If a building has been damaged and they are forced to vacate, rent-regulated tenants have the right to file a “dollar order” with New York State, and pay $1 each month to maintain their rent status until the apartment is restored. Their status would be maintained, sources say, even if the building were sold.
Market-rate tenants do not have the “dollar order” option. Their rights are dependent on their lease, which may have a clause pertaining to a fire or disaster that renders the building uninhabitable.
The situation changes for rent-regulated tenants if there is no building to return to. As a result, Lone said, “this is a very murky situation” for residents of 45 East Seventh St.
The precedent is a 2005 court case, Quiles v. Term Equities, in which the court ruled that when a building is burnt to the ground, and the owner is not at fault, the owner can construct a new building and does not have to offer a former rent-regulated tenant an apartment.
If the owner is responsible for a building’s destruction, all tenants can pursue legal action. Doing so would be pivotal to recouping damages, and perhaps crucial for the right to return if a new building is constructed.
Picking up, moving on
The right to return would be ideal for Mildred Guy, who lost her five-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment at 45 East Seventh St., where she paid $475 a month. Guy, 61, moved here from Puerto Rico with her family at age seven, and lived in the apartment for 45 years.
A paraprofessional at The Neighborhood School, five blocks from her former home, Guy is connected to the community and her Church of Nativity nearby. “Home is here, I’ve been here for all these years, and will continue to be here,” she said.
Guy was grateful her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson had moved upstate weeks prior to the disaster. She did not have renter’s insurance, and her baby grandson’s belongings were destroyed, along with 45 years of family items. Guy has received $37,000 from a fundraising website, GoFundMe.com, but no amount of cash will replace “memories and property that belonged to my grandmother, mother, and son, and that space.”
She stayed a few nights at a YMCA, and received conflicting information about how long she could remain there. “So many agencies and bureaucracy. You don’t know who is in charge. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” Guy said.
Guy focused on finding a place to live. She knew she would not come across what she had. Guy moved into a studio, paying $574 a month, at Cooper Square last week.
Housing resources mobilized
In the immediate aftermath, resources for displaced tenants were mobilized quickly. In the lead was LES Ready, a coalition of 40 organizations created after Hurricane Sandy to coordinate community and government efforts during a disaster. A center was established at Tompkins Square Library on East 10th St., where tenants registered with city agencies, received $250 from the Red Cross for food and clothing and were offered temporary housing.
People who lost apartments altogether get first priority for housing, followed by those displaced by a vacate order. “A couple of not-for-profit housing developers put up people temporarily. We would like it to be permanent, though income guidelines have subsidies and restrictions. Some of those tenants are over income, and don’t qualify for housing,” said City Councilmember Rosie Mendez.
Short-term emergency housing in family centers and single-room-occupancy hotels are provided by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development for people affected by fire or vacate orders. Displaced tenants must sign up with HPD for assistance, and owners, who may pay shelter expenses, also provide HPD with tenant names and apartment numbers.
Meanwhile, GOLES and the Cooper Square Committee are working to relocate tenants, assess needs and organize meetings with attorneys. Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee, a tenant advocacy group, said his organization placed two people in Mutual Housing Association low-income apartments, including Guy, and may help five others.
Kim-Nora Moses, 52, also lived at 45 East Seventh St. She and her husband, Robert Schmidt, 55, had a three-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment for 23 years, and paid close to $2,000 rent. Moses laments the loss of her gorgeous home, and where she is now pales in comparison. The couple, who had renter’s insurance, moved into the same building as Guy this week with help from Cooper Square Committee. Their one-year lease is for a one-bedroom, with a monthly rent of around $800. Lease renewal for the building is dependent on income, and the couple earns too much to stay permanently.
Micha Gerland says he paid $1,010 for his room in a market-rate four-bedroom at 45 East Seventh Street, and had just finished a shower when the blast happened. “It was so intense. The walls shook, I felt the impact, and then I immediately could see dust coming up the window from the bathroom,” he recalled.
Gerland has been staying with friends. Although he signed up for long-term housing, he has not been contacted. Gerland did not have renter’s insurance, and lost his computer, with which he was about to launch a graphic-design business. “I have nothing in possessions, but I have a social network that is a safety net. I have less, but I feel richer,” he said.
Beyond the blast
Even for those vacated tenants who have been allowed to return home, challenges await. The Urban Justice Center is representing residents in five units at 128 Second Avenue—four are rent-stabilized—in an effort to restore gas, heat and hot water, which were poorly delivered before the blast.
“The biggest issue we have is the city lifted the vacate orders, which a lot of people believe is premature,” tenants’ attorney Stephanie Rudolph said. Tenants are worried about lead paint and air quality inside their apartments. Rudolph has seen photos of the apartments, and says, “They do not look habitable at all. They look very burned out, and I’m told there are very noxious odors.”
The city Department of Health conducted air quality readings, and found normal levels detected by monitors less than 24 hours after the fire. About 300 air samples analyzed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection came up negative for asbestos fibers. As of press time, the Health Department did not confirm where the monitors were placed.
GOLES has been helping tenants at 125 Second Ave. to facilitate city inspections and keep an eye on repair progress. Lone estimated 18 people there were not living in their severely damaged apartments. He also reports that there is no gas at 125, 127, and 129 Second Aves., because of the explosion.
The other critical piece for GOLES is to determine if vacated or destroyed apartments are properly regulated. Most are at market rate, and rent histories are turning up “sketchy,” according to Lone, who wants to submit these histories to the tenant protection unit of DHCR. Rudolph has also seen a handful of rent histories with a similar pattern of apartment destabilization.
Landlords can illegally destabilize units by leaving units vacant for an amount of time, conducting renovations and then drastically increasing the rent. “It really tears apart the community. When a landlord deregulates illegally, it pushes somebody out who needs that apartment in that same neighborhood,” Rudolph said.
In the instance of a fire, landlords can opt for the same tactic if tenants do not return to damaged apartments or take legal action. “Firefighters do a lot of internal damage to units. They pour water onto the building, and they rip out walls” tenant lawyer John Gorman said, “It’s often cosmetic, but owners see that as an opportunity to deregulate.”
Market-rate tenants whose apartments are found to have been illegally destabilized could have more of a right to return to the building than other market payers. Tenants with suspect rent histories can submit a group filing against the landlord for an administrative determination by DHCR. The agency would scrutinize whether the apartment was illegally deregulated.
Whatever their rent status, tenants who lost their homes need help. There is some monetary relief on its way to individuals and families affected by the explosion, for housing and material goods. The first installment of $45,000, from the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, was released to LES Ready on April 29. More than $150,000 was raised by donation, and LES Ready will disseminate funds based on need.
LES Ready has contacted over 100 people, and is contracted to provide help for three months to the 63 units impacted. A LES Ready case manager has met with 25 people, with a dozen more appointments scheduled. Next week, Nazareth Housing, a nonprofit, will be involved with a case management team for referrals to housing, financial assistance, and mental health services.
State Sen. Brad Holyman, 27th District, is working with city officials to provide help from the state. He met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently to discuss the disaster, and plans to work with DHCR. “If the landlord is culpable, it would be an injustice on top of a tragedy for tenants to both lose their homes, and the landlord to profit from rebuilding without accommodating the rent-stabilized tenants who lived in the building,” he said.
Holyman mentioned an option to make the area a federal disaster zone, which would open up more funding. “We’re going to try to fight for any state dollars we’re eligible for,” he said.