Grand Street Fire Victims Sue Landlord

283-285 Grand Street

A lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of 75 residents left homeless by the devastating fire that ripped through their buildings, 283 and 285 Grand Street, in April of last year.

In a news conference held yesterday at the offices of Asian Americans for Equality,  attorneys working on the case pro-bono announced a civil lawsuit against the building owner, Fair Only Real Estate Corp. The complaint (made available to reporters), alleges that the landlord “directly caused and exacerbated” the fire by “knowingly and intentionally” ignoring “highly dangerous conditions” in the buildings.

The 7-alarm fire (one of the worst blazes in recent NYC history) broke out in a commercial space in the back of 283 Grand Street April 11, 2010.  It tore through four buildings on the south side of Grand Street, between Eldridge and Forsyth.  An elderly resident, 87-year old Sing Ho, was killed. Many others were injured. In the aftermath of the fire, 283 and 285 Grand were demolished. The owner of 289 Grand Street (on the corner of Eldridge) insists his building must also be knocked down (more on that at the end of this story).

Last year a Fire Department investigation found that “sparks or heat from an overheated electrical junction box” in 283 Grand ignited the fire.  In the suit, attorneys from Patterson, Belknap, Webb and Tyler claim the landlord “intentionally maintained these buildings in a dangerous state of disrepair prior to the fire.” In a 19-page complaint they allege the following:

(That) the defendants negligently maintained the buildings’ electrical systems, provided inadequate fire retardant materials in the walls, hallways, stairwells and other partitions and failed to install functioning smoke detectors… the defendants (left) wiring exposed throughout the building… (they allowed) severe water leaks to rot out walls and invade electrical outlets (and)… provided ample kindling for the fire, failing to remove garbage and rubbish, which routinely spilled out onto shared hallways and stairwells and accumulated in the buildings’ basements and backyards… the defendants also willfully ignored citations from the (NYC) Department of Housing and Preservation that directly addressed deficiencies in the buildings’ fire stopping materials… On two separate occasions in December 2009, the (Fire Department) was dispatched to 283 Grand Street due to smoke emanating from the boiler in the basement and into the residents’ apartments. The Fire Department had to ventilate the building and evacuate the residents… In August 2007, the Fire Department also extinguished a fire in the cellar of 283 Grand Street caused by the ignition of disgarded materials in an interior stairway. No smoke detectors were present and two infants for smoke inhalation…

The ruins of 283-285 Grand in the days before the buildings were demolished. Photo supplied by Asian Americans for Equality.

The attorneys, Vivian Storm and Reed Bienvenu, said the amount they’re seeking for the residents will be determined at trial. They want the building owners -Solomon Scheinfeld and Ralph Sherman – to compensate the fire victims for property losses and to pay punitive damages. The property losses alone total more than $2 million, they said.

The residents – almost all of whom paid rent regulated rents on Grand Street – are dispersed in apartments throughout New York City.  One man, Wai Kwok, said he’s living in a studio on Eldridge Street. His family occupied a two-bedroom apartment at 285 Grand for more than 20-years. Another resident, Ai Sheng Fang, told World Journal he lived on Grand Street for 10 years, paying $900 month in rent. A $900 security deposit was never returned.

283-285 Grand Street. A 2-story commercial building will soon rise on this parcel.

The attorneys said they had made unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the owner. They indicated Fair Only Realty faced numerous lawsuits, including a separate suit from the family of Sing Ho, the man who died.  The landlord’s insurance policy, they suggested, was insufficient to cover all of the legal actions.

In the past few weeks, the Department of Buildings approved a plan from Fair Only to build a new 2-story commercial building at 283-285 Grand Street. Asian Americans for Equality had hoped they would decide to put up a new mixed use (residential and commercial) structure, and give displaced residents an opportunity to return to their homes. Since this is not the plan, AAFE is focusing on getting the fire victims some financial relief.

We attempted to contact Fair Only Realty, via phone and email.  There was no response.

Another lawsuit AAFE filed on behalf of the residents displaced from 289 Grand is further along. The landlord, Wong’s Grand Street Realty, contends the building is unsafe and must be demolished.  The residents are arguing that there’s no structural damage and the building can be repaired.  Some testimony was heard earlier this month. The trial resumes in early September with an on-site inspection by the judge.