UPDATED May 25, 5:45 p.m.
After losing everything in a massive five-alarm blaze last month, the displaced tenants of an Elmhurst apartment building just want to return home and rebuild their lives.
However, the management company that owns the seven-story apartment house at 94th Street that went up in flames on April 11 has been slow to make the necessary repairs, according to the Legal Aid Society. Eleven firefighters were injured, and all of the residents escaped without physical injury, many of them remain in temporary shelters across the city.
Most of the 111 apartments inside “The Martinique” building remain vacant, and a number of the fire victims have been told that the repairs could take years to complete, the Legal Aid Society noted.
Fearing that the landlord doesn’t want them to return, many of the victims — with the Legal Aid Society’s help — have filed a lawsuit calling on the courts to appoint an administrator that would oversee the repairs and ensure they are completed in a “transparent and accountable way.” The legal action was also filed against the City of New York, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Environmental Control Board.
Sateesh Nori, attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society’s Queens civil office, indicated that the situation could be tantamount to “landlord fraud.” The management company, he alleges, may be using the blaze as an opportunity to keep the displaced tenants out in order to rebuild the apartments and then offer them at higher rents.
“Too often, landlords can exploit a tragedy like this fire to exploit the impacted tenants by forcing them to give up their rights,” Nori said. “This lawsuit will protect these tenants from being forced to move out or face long delays and exorbitant rent increases. The tenants are entitled to have their apartment restored to habitability quickly and without rent increases. Residents of this building have suffered enough tragedy. They deserve nothing less.”
The Legal Aid Society indicated that the legal action, called an Article 7A proceeding, is necessary due to the fire’s suspicious nature. A day after the blaze, FDNY marshals arrested a contractor — Declan Mcelhatton of Maintenance Asset Management based in Yonkers, NY — on arson and reckless endangerment charges. Law enforcement sources said Mcelhatton had allegedly left an open flame near combustible material inside the structure that led to the five-alarm inferno.
Records on the Department of Buildings website indicate that a partial vacate order for the building remains due to the fire damage. The building’s ownership, as listed, is the 56-11 94th Street Co., LLC, a holding company of which Laurence T. Ginsberg is registered as a member.
QNS reached out to Ginsberg by phone and were directed to a voicemail for Algin Management, which describes itself on its website as “a family-owned and operated real estate company with over 50 years of experience” that manages a portfolio “of over 3,500 residential residences across Manhattan and Queens,” including “pre-war townhouses to newly constructed modern towers.”
A statement from Algin Management noted that the owners “have been deeply committed to this building over the past 50 years, and from the moment this incident occurred, management has been in contact with all residents to communicate verbally and in writing.”
“Any claims to the contrary are patently false,” the statement continued. “Leases are being preserved and apartments are being held for residents who wish to return when repairs are complete.”
Algin indicated that the building’s management “has been working around the clock to determine which areas are safe to re-enter both for permanent re-occupancy of the unaffected wing of the building, and for the removal of personal property in the affected wing, which is set to undergo full interior construction and renovation.”
“For this purpose, management has retained architectural engineers, mechanical engineers and environmental consultants, and progress is being made on the project, which includes major, time-consuming abatement work,” the statement concluded. “Efforts will continue to advance the process of rebuilding so that all residents who wish to return to their homes may do so as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, two local elected officials expressed their support of the legal action.
“It is reprehensible when people want to benefit from a tragedy,” State Senator Jose Peralta said. “This fire, which is under criminal investigation, left dozens of hardworking families temporarily without a roof, and now their landlord is playing games to force these victims to give up their rights by threatening them with delays and increased rents. I applaud The Legal Aid Society for its efforts to protect the victims of the fire by filing a lawsuit on their behalf.”
“I fully support this lawsuit which will protect tenants and hold the landlord accountable for its actions,” added City Councilman Daniel Dromm. “These families have already suffered greatly. This horrible chapter in their lives must be resolved as quickly and fairly as possible. An independent administrator will ensure timely restoration of the building without undue rent increases for tenants. The safety and well-being of my constituents will always be a top priority. I will continue to advocate for them.”