Jan. 5, 2024 By Bill Parry
Sunnyside residents who were displaced by a massive five-alarm inferno that destroyed their apartment complex just days before Christmas, had their misery compounded Thursday when they were given just a three-hour window to remove their belongings from the burned-out apartments so repairs could begin.
The tenants had been notified Wednesday that they had to remove their items, giving them 24-hours to make the necessary arrangements. Many depended on friends and volunteers from the neighborhood to quickly salvage their property during the allotted 3-hour period on Thursday.
The residents’ scramble for their belongings comes about two weeks after a fire erupted in their 43-09 47th St. that left 450 residents temporarily homeless. The Dec. 20 blaze was sparked by a contractor using an unauthorized blow torch in a vacant sixth-floor apartment, FDNY fire marshals determined.
David Alvarez, who had been living in a third-floor apartment for more than 18 years with his wife, was denied entry to the building by security on Thursday and complained about “intermittent communication” from A&E Real Estate, the management company. He apparently didn’t come during the designated three-hour period.
“We just want to know when we can go in and get whatever’s available to get out of there and it’s just frustrating the lack of communication,” Alvarez said, whose mother-in-law had been living in an apartment on the same floor.
“I understand that A&E has their business to run but there’s a human element of 105 families, 105 apartments being displaced at what the fire department is calling basically their fault, because their contractor or whoever was doing work on an empty apartment up there, used a torch.”
Alvarez said they are staying with friends after A&E offered to put them up in one of their properties.
“We got an offer for an apartment in East Harlem that doesn’t work for us,” Alvarez said. “Now we’re out here in the middle of winter…and we’re still waiting to see what the direction of our life is going to go.”
Some of the residents who did gain entry to their apartments found that some of their property was missing with at least one tenant filing a complaint at the 108th Precinct in Long Island City. Council Member Julie Won talked with several of the frustrated residents in front of the building.
“This is their first time going in since the fire, seeing fire damage, water damage, seeing things stolen from them and having to deal with the mental and emotional heartbreak, while also trying to triage what they’re going to keep and what they’re going to let be thrown out,” Won said.
”It is nice that they’re offering temporary placements for people for six months in other apartments but they’re not in Sunnyside or anywhere near here in Western Queens.”
A&E stepped in to assist the displaced residents when help from the Red Cross and city agencies expired on Dec. 27 and are trying to match each resident with an alternative apartment in a neighborhood that works for them but they have a limited inventory of vacant apartments in their properties in Western Queens.
Many have received offers in Kew Gardens Hills or the Riverton in Harlem.
“We know how overwhelming this experience has been. We’ve worked through the holidays to provide free hotel accommodations to every family in need and to make sure every resident has been offered a temporary apartment to live in while repairs are underway in Sunnyside,” an A&E spokesman said.
“We’ve given residents more time to weigh their options and make a decision. Our priority is making sure every resident has a roof over their heads.”
He added that the three-hour window residents were given to retrieve their belongings was due to safety concerns. He noted that residents who were unable to pick up their items will be given an opportunity to do so in the future.
“Given the serious damage to the building and on-going construction, access remains difficult, so we are providing residents with a crew to assist them pack up units and move items out of the building,” he said.
“In order to give every resident the same opportunity to retrieve furniture and belongings—and because only a limited number of move-outs can safely happen at a time—we will be offering morning and afternoon windows over the next several weeks so that everyone has some opportunity. If any resident needs an additional window to retrieve belongings, we will arrange it. The first time slots for this week and early next week are for residents of the 6th floor who have not yet been able to get into their units due to extensive damage.”
Won was also concerned about some residents who received another email from A&E about a “significant rent increase” expected to the apartments, after they are renovated. The A&E spokesman explained that the majority of the units in the building are rent-controlled and that email was sent to tenants in market-rate apartments whose leases are almost up. He said those emails had been pre-scheduled before the fire and sent in error.
Meanwhile, Won’s district office is running a free store for displaced residents with donated items like clothing and hygiene supplies, and she said TF Cornerstone is offering six-month storage space for free to those who were impacted by the fire.
“The biggest call is, if you have short-term rental or you have an apartment or any rental nearby that you are willing to lease to these folks, we want to connect them,” Won said. “Because they want to stay in the neighborhood.”
Residents will be given a few hours to move their belongings again on Monday, Jan. 8 and Tuesday, Jan. 9th. Those looking to volunteer can coordinate with the office of Councilmember Won by emailing [email protected].
Donations can be made to the Sunnyside Fire relief fund organized by Sunnyside Community Services by clicking here.
Additional reporting by Paul Frangipane