A big victory today for the residents of 289 Grand Street, who have been fighting for two years to return home to their apartments after a devastating fire. A housing court judge ruled in their favor, saying the property owner is compelled to renovate the building, rather than tear it down.
Late this afternoon, the tenants, along with Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), an organization advocating legally on their behalf, and local elected officials called a news conference to celebrate the decision.
The fire swept through three buildings in April of 2010, killing an elderly man and displacing more than 200 residents. Two neighboring buildings were torn down, after city inspectors determined they were destabilized. Wong’s Grand Realty Corp., which owns 289 Grand, insisted their building was also a total loss. Officials with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development disagreed. The matter ended up before Housing Court Judge Timmie Erin Eisner.
The property owner launched an “economic infeasibility defense,” arguing that that the costs of restoring the building would exceed what it was worth and what it could generate in future income. In her ruling, the judge asserted the defense failed to prove its case.
She found the owner’s estimate of the pre-fire value of the building was “flawed and unreliable” while their evaluation of what it would cost to repair 289 Grand was “excessive, unreasonable and not credible.”
The court determined the building was worth $4,200,000 before the fire. The judge rejected the owner’s contention that it would cost more than $7 million to rehab the structure. The real cost of repairs, she ruled, is $2,300,000, slightly more than the engineer hired by the tenants estimated.
At today’s news conference, AAFE Executive Director Chris Kui said, “this community has won a major victory.”
State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has spoken in support of the tenants on several occasions, said, “this is a great day for those of us who consistently fight to preserve affordable housing in this neighborhood” and throughout New York. He used the opportunity to call for renewed efforts to strengthen laws protecting rent regulated tenants.
State Senator Daniel Squadron praised AAFE’s organizing efforts in the aftermath of the fire. The judge’s decision, he said, sends a strong message to landlords that they cannot displace rent regulated tenants, especially in the aftermath of a terrible tragedies.
City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who has played a major role in advocating for the residents of 289 Grand, noted the awful ordeal they’ve endured in the past two years and expressed hope that the residents would finally be able to go home in the months ahead.
John Gorman, AAFE’s attorney, said he had every expectation the property owner would appeal. He expressed hope that the legal process will not drag on too long. Gorman also said he was hopeful that the repairs could be made in 10 or 11 months. He said the rents at 289 Grand would be the same as what the tenants were paying the day before the fire broke out.
Several residents of the building attended the news conference. One woman, Ms. Zhang (no first name given) said she would very much like to return to her old apartment when repairs are made.
Tonight, we contacted Adam Leitman Bailey, the owner’s attorney. He confirmed there would be an appeal. “This decision is just round 1,” he said. “The judge believed their expert over our expert on how much it would cost to rebuild the building. When the truth comes out, we will be back in front of the judge demonstrating the flaws in their expert’s testimony and obtaining justice for the landowner.”