Several Queens elected officials joined more than 60 tenants and their families who were displaced by a massive fire in Jackson Heights to call for a “dignified and compassionate” return to their homes on Monday, April 12.
Monday’s press conference took place in front of 89-07 34th Ave., the six-story building where the eight-alarm fire broke out last week, and was organized by its tenants association, 89th Street Tenants Unidos. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, state Senator Jessica Ramos, Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and a representative from Councilman Daniel Dromm’s office stood with the tenants as they spoke about their devastating loss and need for long-term support.
“This is a crisis. This is a disaster impacting an entire community,” said Andrew Sokolof Diaz, co-president of the tenants association. “There are 132 apartments in these two buildings behind me, and over 150 families, who in less than an hour lost our homes and were left with only the clothes on our backs.”
Sokolof Diaz said many of the families in the building — known as an immigrant hub that welcomed everyone — are low-income, working-class immigrants, who were already disproportionately affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Nube Bermejo, a mother of three children, lived on the third floor of the building for eight years with her husband. Bermejo was overcome with emotion when speaking about the fear they felt as they evacuated the burning building, saying they’ve had sleepless nights since then.
“It hurts to remember and to see our home today,” Bermejo said in Spanish.
Bermejo said that while she’s staying with family nearby, they can’t stay there much longer. But she said she’s afraid the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will place them in family shelters or hotels that are too far from her children’s schools.
“Since we’re a large family, HPD will need to send us to a family shelter, but they don’t have shelters in Queens; they’re in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan,” Bermejo said. “I can’t wake them up so early to bring them here to Queens for school. How am I going to do it?”
HPD and the American Red Cross placed many of the families in hotels across the borough, with some tenants saying they’re in hotels at JFK Airport. But for many of them who don’t have transportation, JFK is too far.
Elvira Suarez, 73, has lived in the building with her husband, who is 78 years old, since 1976. When the fire broke out, Suarez said she lost two cats, and only had time to grab one pup. Her other seven cats who survived are currently in a shelter in Manhattan, while Suarez and her husband stay in a hotel in JFK.
Suarez asked to be moved to a nearby hotel, as it’s hard for her husband to use public transit.
“I tried to bring him back on the first day in a taxi and it cost $40,” Suarez said in Spanish. “I don’t have that kind of money for me to come and go.”
Tenant leaders said HPD has had an “insensitive and irresponsible approach” by forcing them into the shelter system and forcing them to stay in hotels that are too far from 89th Street.
While the hotel stay was meant to expire on April 13, elected officials announced on Monday that HPD has extended the stay until April 20.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez called it a “small victory.”
“We need to make sure that families can get their homes back and their lives back, keep kids in school, make sure that our workers can continue to live in this community, and that this is not used as a cover for displacement,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
The tenants association presented a list of demands, which included keeping families and their pets together at hotels in or near Jackson Heights; a dignified pathway back to their home with a three-month or up to a 12-month stay-in-place order; transportation for children and students attending school in-person; food and nutrition coordination; and healthcare services (especially mental health support for families and children) — all in their native language. They said they need mobile COVID vaccine and testing vans wherever the families are housed.
González-Rojas said that the local officials sent a letter to HPD asking for the extension, but said they know tenants “need money and you need a safe and dignified home that’s in the community, and we are fighting.”
Tenants are also calling on the city to establish a multimillion-dollar fund for their neighbors, many of whom are essential workers who have been excluded from government aid throughout the pandemic.
Sokolof Diaz said he’s grateful community members and local organizations have helped, whether it’s through donations, food or supply collection, in ways the city has failed to.
Ramos, who led the way for the historic $2 billion excluded workers fund, said her district’s fire is one of the largest Queens has seen in years, partly as a result of inadequate infrastructure.
“We should be thankful that our community can depend on one another, not all communities are like ours, ours is very special,” Ramos said. “But more than the love that we have for each other, we have to support each other monetarily, support each other morally and advocate for each other to call on the city to do what’s right and prevent the displacement of these families long term.”
Sergio Melo, a tenant of the building, said he wasn’t alerted of the fire by an alarm, but by his neighbor.
“I helped kids get out. I didn’t grab anything,” Melo said in Spanish. “For eight hours, I was barefoot for the first time in my life.”
He added that while many of the tenants are undocumented, they work hard and pay taxes, and expect results from their elected officials.
“When you all knock on our doors, we answer. Now, we’re knocking on your door and we need an answer,” Melo said.
Richards said he’s reminded of Hurricane Sandy and the mass displacement he saw as a councilman.
“We don’t want to hear that our residents have to remain in hotels, in shelters near JFK; we want people to stay in their neighborhoods and that means any hotels in this neighborhood need to be filled with the people from this neighborhood,” Richards said. “We have to make sure that we stay together. If we stay together, if we swim together, we can ensure that we see more than just this extension — we want another extension until people can get back in their building.”
He added that he’s in communication with HPD’s Commissioner Louise Caroll and the Red Cross to discuss their demands.
When asked for a response to the tenants’ demands, an HPD spokesperson said, “HPD worked with the American Red Cross to extend hotel stays through April 20. We are asking for all impacted households to register with HPD’s Emergency Housing Services to receive further relocation support, including assistance returning home where possible. We are directly contacting families impacted by the fire to determine their needs and what support can be provided.”
Iris Flores, co-president of the tenants association, said she lived in the sixth floor of the building, and while she was able to save her dog, she lost everything else.
“As the backbone of NYC and proud essential workers, we have been through a lot in the last year. First COVID and now this,” Flores said. “The minimum we’re asking for is homes. Like me, my neighbors are now hungry, we’re cold, we’re restless. We’re uncertain of what the future holds for us. We do not need to be separated anymore.”