‘We demand dignified treatment’: Jackson Heights tenants displaced by fire call for emergency housing extension

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Tenants of 89th Street in Jackson Heights demand emergency housing extension on June 10. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

Dozens of families of the Jackson Heights apartment building that went up in flames two months ago are calling on the city to extend their emergency hotel stay, allowing them more time to find affordable housing near their neighborhood.

More than 100 families and neighbors gathered outside of 89-07 34th Ave. in Jackson Heights on Thursday, June 10, for a press conference organized by the building’s tenants union, 89 Street Tenants Unidos, and Love Wins Food Pantry.

Multiple tenants spoke about being displaced by the massive fire that ripped through the six-story apartment, leaving more than 500 people without their homes, on April 6. The city placed families in hotels and shelters across the five boroughs and granted residents longer hotel stays after elected officials advocated for an extension.

Now, residents are asking for the same extension as they face “eviction” from their hotel stay on June 20. Tenants, most of whom are immigrant and working-class New Yorkers, also demand additional long-term support.

“I’m here today because I know most if not all of my neighbors don’t meet the requirements to live elsewhere and need to return to 89th Street,” said Angie Espino, 24, who’s lived in the building with her family her whole life. “But in order to do that, we need to make sure the process to return home is dignified and safe. We’re here today because we demand a dignified treatment from HPD and city agencies in response to one of the worst tragedies in the recent history of Jackson Heights.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos implored Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to heed the families’ concerns and demands.

“It’s been nine weeks without understanding what will happen in the future for these families, where they’ll live, how they will be able to return to whatever semblance of normalcy within the context of the pandemic,” Ramos said. “We need to put pressure on the mayor and city to put themselves in gear to not only extend their hotel stay, but also to help them find permanent housing and, hopefully, in our neighborhood. We want our neighbors back in our neighborhood. We miss them.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos joined tenants of 89th Street in Jackson Heights to demand emergency housing extension on June 10. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

Tenants, some of whom have lived in the building for more than three decades, spoke about hurdles they’ve experienced with HPD.

“Having been displaced by the fire and now facing an eviction from our hotel has been stressful for my family and hasn’t been made easier as HPD continues to pressure us into the shelter system without having the capacity to support us,” said Ingrid Perez, 18, who’s expecting a baby within the next month. “My family has been my support system throughout my pregnancy, yet HPD won’t allow my brother to enter a shelter with us because he doesn’t have an ID. His ID is still in our apartment along with everything left inside.”

In a statement to QNS, an HPD spokesperson said the agency already worked with the American Red Cross to extend the hotel stays for two months following the fire to offer households more time to find alternative housing in or near Jackson Heights.

“HPD also provides relocation assistance and has already referred several families to affordable housing options,” the HPD spokesperson said. “We are asking households not registered with our Emergency Housing Services to please do so to receive further support.”

Families have to contact HPD’s Emergency Housing Services at 212-863-7660 or email ehs-remote@hpd.nyc.gov to register for the assistance. Households can stay in HPD shelters until they locate permanent housing or their vacated address is deemed habitable, whichever comes first.

HPD’s Family Centers are staffed with Department of Education representatives to coordinate school services, including transportation.

Tenants of 89th Street in Jackson Heights demand emergency housing extension on June 10. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

HPD has referred households to new affordable homes in Far Rockaway and Jamaica, as Jackson Heights has historically low vacancy rates. Most of the Jackson Heights families have declined those options.

Tenants are instead demanding options in or near their homes on 34th Avenue until they can return. According to them, their landlord and the city have not provided a clear timeline for their return to the building as repairs and reconstruction persist.

Jerika Castillo, a lifelong Jackson Heights resident who’s lived on 89th Street more than 10 years, said that on top of losing belongings in the fire, someone had robbed her of what was left after the blaze.

“Everything I worked so hard for, and during this crisis, was taken away from me,” said Castillo, adding that it happened to several other tenants too. “Do you know what that feels like?”

Castillo, a mother of a 3-year-old son and an essential worker, said they’re currently staying at a hotel near JFK Airport. She said it takes her more than two hours to get to work in Manhattan and needs to leave her hotel room every day to feed her son, which costs about $80 each day.

Castillo said the damage as a result of the fire — which the FDNY determined was an accident caused by an overloaded electrical power strip — also caused water and asbestos damage.

The 89th Street building is still closed off while repairs are ongoing. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

A representative for Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas’ office read a statement, saying the lawmaker couldn’t make it in person because of the ongoing session in Albany.

“We’re currently drafting a letter to the mayor in partnership with the other offices of elected officials requesting an additional extension of temporary housing in the hotels,” González-Rojas’ statement read. “We know that we are most effective when communities organize and governments respond adequately.”

Several local lawmakers, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, signed on to the first letter asking for an extension. Her office did not respond to QNS’ request for comment.

A representative for Queens Borough President Donovan Richards office also read a statement in support of the tenants’ demands.

“You need more time. You and your families need another hotel stay extension in order to secure housing that is appropriate,” Richards’ statement read. “We hope the city will continue to accommodate. Now more than ever, the tenants here at 89th Street and 34th Avenue need our support as they recover.”

De Blasio said the families are being offered long-term housing in Queens, after he was asked by 89 Street Tenants Unidos’ Co-President Andrew Sokolof-Díaz for the extension during WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Friday, June 11.

“Now some folks will say, immediately, well, is it in the exact same neighborhood they were in? No, the honest truth is no, but it is in Queens. It is permanent affordable housing, affordable for the incomes of these families,” de Blasio said. “So, I think considering the folks went through this tragedy and the city of New York’s response is not just here’s a hotel room for a little while, but actually here’s long-term affordable housing for your family – this is an important indicator of the way we try to really support people.”

While de Blasio said he’s “certainly looking at the hotel situation,” he did not address whether an extension is forthcoming.

Sergio Melo, a tenants of 89th Street in Jackson Heights, called on officials to not forget them while demanding an emergency housing extension on June 10. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

Tenants and local advocates are asking the city to pilot a “displacement prevention program” to help New Yorkers who endure the same issue in the future.

Daniel Puerto, local activist and founder of Love Wins Food Pantry, said families will soon receive money from the GoFundMe that he helped set up for the tenants a day after the fire. They are still accepting donations.

“A family will receive about $1,000 but it’ll just be a one-time donation,” Puerto said. “For some families it’s a lot, but for others it’s a little piece of sand in their pots. They need more long-term, humane solutions so people can go back home.”

Sokolof-Díaz, a husband and father of a 4-month-old, said the pathway back to their homes in 89th Street is still “very uncertain” as dates keep getting changed.

“It’s just repetitive, repetitive retraumatization,” Sokolof-Díaz said. “We’re just trying to prevent further displacement.”

That night, the tenants set up a projector with bold white words — “United Not Displaced,” “Hotel Extension Now!” and “Thank you to our community for all the support!” — cascading over their building.

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