By Bill Parry
An Elmhurst apartment building was nearly destroyed by a five-alarm blaze on April 11 and now, nearly one-third of the residents have signed on to a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society to protect them from landlord fraud.
The management company that owns The Martinique has been slow in making necessary repairs to most of the 111 apartments at 56-11 94th St., and the lawsuit, called a 7A proceeding, seeks an order of the court to appoint an administrator to oversee the repair process in a transparent and accountable way.
The lawsuit names the landlord, 56-11 94th Street Co., LLC, as well as the city, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Environmental Control Board.
“Too often, landlords can exploit a tragedy like this fire to exploit the impacted tenants by forcing them to give up their rights,” said Sateesh Nori, attorney-in-charge of the Queens Civil Office at the Legal Aid Society. “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.”
Eleven firefighters were injured, but all the tenants escaped unscathed.
One day after the fire, contractor Declan McElhatton, 53, was arrested by fire marshals and charged with arson after investigators found he had worked with a torch, which is prohibited near tar on a wooden roof. The employee from Maintenance Asset Management, based in Yonkers, is due back in court in June.
Meanwhile, most of the 111 apartments remain unoccupied due to a vacate order issued by the city and many of the families are being housed in temporary shelters run by the city. A number of tenants have lost their life’s possessions as a result of the fire, smoke and water damage.
Others are unable to retrieve their possessions because of the prohibitions on entering the building imposed by both the city and the landlord. Now, many of the tenants are being told the repair process could take years, according to the Legal Aid Society.
Without a fair, independent administrator, the tenants fear excessive delays, unnecessary improvements, and the incentive from the landlord to raise the rents through repairs.
“It is reprehensible when people want to benefit from tragedy,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) 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.”
The tenants see an Article 7A proceeding as the only form of action that would help them return to their apartments in a timely manner, with conditions repaired and with less of a risk that they would have to suffer any further repercussions.
“I fully support this lawsuit, which will protect tenants and hold the landlord accountable for its actions,” City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said. “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 my top priority, and I will continue to advocate for them.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr