Grand Street Fire Victims Claim Belongings; Sheldon Silver On the Scene

Photo by Xavier Veal

The photo above may not seem all that remarkable.   Modeling cards, a dvd player, a few other personal possessions are strewn on top of an unmade bed.  This image, however,  was not taken in just any apartment — but inside 289 Grand Street — one of three buildings ravaged by fire last spring and off limits to residents ever since.

The photographer was a young guy named Xavier Veal, who walked into the abandoned building one day in August, apparently unaware what he had stumbled upon.  His photos have now become part of the bitter battle between 289 Grand’s landlord and tenants who have desperately wanted access to their homes — if for no other reason than to claim treasured personal belongings.

Yesterday, on a judge’s orders, the residents were allowed inside and were able to carry out some of their things. Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), a tenant advocacy organization, as well as State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and City Councilmember Margaret Chin were all on hand to make sure everything went smoothly.  Silver’s office sent us a statement a short time ago about the situation:

“I am very pleased that tenants of 289 Grand Street, who have suffered enormously since the fire this spring, were allowed back into the building … to retrieve their belongings. I will continue to fight for these tenants as they try to return to their apartments permanently once the proper repairs are made.”

It has been six months since a devastating fire displaced more than 300 tenants on Grand Street. Two buildings, 283 and 285 Grand, were demolished after the Department of Buildings declared them structurally unstable. But the DOB concluded 289 Grand could be repaired. The owner, Wong’s Grand Street Realty, disagreed — arguing it was unsafe and should be taken down.  Some of the units are rent controlled/stabilized, which is why the owner cannot unilaterally decide to demolish the building.

Both sides were scheduled back in court today.  The owner’s attorney, Adam Leitman Bailey, wants more time to gather evidence for an “economic infeasibility defense,” requiring him to show the cost of fixing the building would exceed its market value.  John Gorman, AAFE’s attorney, said he had not seen any evidence so far to support the landlord’s defense and he’s hoping the judge will throw the case out before trial. AAFE Executive Director Chris Kui said the landlord is simply trying to intimidate the tenants and delay making repairs as long as possible.

The photos shot by Xavier Veal offer the best indication so far of the building’s condition.  Debris and water damage are apparent in hallways and in some living areas. But many apartments appear to be more or less in tact.  Out of respect for the tenants’ privacy, we’re only using the one photo at the top of this post (the resident of the apartment depicted gave us permission).

The residents arrived at 289 Grand yesterday, with waiver forms in hand. The owner had insisted on this step to address concerns about liability.  On the scene yesterday, tenants were told they were not wearing proper shoes and could not go inside until they purchased boots. After a trip to a nearby store, they were granted access.

Back in July, a judge ordered Wong’s Grand Street Realty to grant the tenants access. But the two sides returned to court earlier this month, for clarification. Saying he believed his first order was clear, the judge issued a new order specifying a date for the residents to gather their possessions.  Arrangements were also made to have large items removed by a third party, in the next few weeks.

All of these months, many of the tenants have been staying in apartments made available by AAFE. In spite of the support they have received from elected officials, non-profit organizations and the city the long ordeal has taken its toll. One resident, who asked not be be identified told us:

I walked by the building (recently) and my heart sank thinking of all the things I still have up there, (including) keepsakes from my grandmother… Our hearts are breaking. Some tenants are still staying in hotels and many others still sleeping on friends’ couches. I look forward to the day when our apartments will be restored – as the fire was not our fault – and we should certainly not be punished for it.

We have a call into Leitman Bailey, the owner’s attorney. We’ll let you know if he responds.