By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Last year we shared stories about the victims of the 89th Street fire that engulfed two buildings in Jackson Heights, Queens, on April 6, 2021. Life for the tenants has been difficult since, as they have had to acclimate to living in a different neighborhood, far away from their schools, friends, churches and community. Many of them have had to get used to new work commutes and living in a hotel room. The situation has become unbearable for many. Last year, the tenants, represented by the Legal Aid Society, sued their landlord, Kedex Properties, in housing court. After months of virtual court hearings, the court ordered that the tenants will be allowed to go back home — the question is … when?
We spoke to Rosa Arias, who lived in building 89-11, after the fire. She was originally sent to the Tillary Hotel in Brooklyn, far away from her community, friends and most importantly, her family. That includes her 91-year-old-father, who she cares for and who lives a short walk away from her former home in Jackson Heights. Arias and her husband requested to transfer to a hotel closer to home, and spent time in Maspeth before moving to the Airway Inn near LaGuardia Airport, where they currently reside.
While many equate hotels with vacation, it’s been nothing but a nightmare for people like Arias. She’s currently dealing with roaches and a malfunctioning bathroom. There was an issue with Arias’ shower head that the hotel manager is currently fixing. However, this hotel is closer to her father. Arias did not feel safe at the Brooklyn and Maspeth hotels. A woman had come banging on her hotel door saying someone was after her which made Arias feel uneasy. She says that while Airway Inn is her best option, this isn’t how she envisioned her life looking.
“I miss cooking dinner. I miss my neighbors. I miss my day-to-day life. My life [before this] wasn’t easy sometimes, but this is worse,” says Arias. “I miss being able to come home from shopping and then taking a seat on my couch. Over here, there is no couch, just the bed and a little chair I lined [with plush].”
Assembly member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas has been working alongside tenants for the past year, whether she’s giving out Thanksgiving meals or supporting them in court, she’s witnessed the struggles the tenants have faced.
“It’s been a nightmare for them and my heart goes out to them. The trauma they’ve experienced over the last 15 months is unnecessary,” she says. “It’s been such a difficult journey for these tenants, and I’ve been trying to be their best advocate … to fight for their rights.”
Only Arias and her husband live in the hotel room, but they have to fit their entire lives inside those four walls. All of their clothes must fit in one closet, their food must fit in a mini fridge, and they must share the space with their dog, Baby, Arias’ companion of 15 years. Their children are adults and before the fire they imagined the rest of their lives filled with playing with their grandchildren. Just one day before the fire, Arias had bought a cake to celebrate the remodeling of her apartment. The cake and celebration would signify a new beginning, but the party never happened. Now, Arias cannot enjoy her life as a grandmother, it’s difficult for her, and sometimes shameful, to bring her grandkids to the hotel.
“We are not living, we are just surviving,” she says. “What I miss most is being able to bring my grandchildren to my home. How am I supposed to bring a child here? Where are they supposed to play? There is no space. They can bump into the furniture and get hurt.”
In order to keep living in the hotel for free, Arias must complete a housing log to prove that she’s been looking for apartments. However, rent in New York City has skyrocketed in recent months. It’s virtually impossible to find one-bedroom apartments in Jackson Heights or Elmhurst, Queens, below $1,700. Arias wants to be as close to her dad and her home as possible, most importantly she does not want to leave the neighborhood where she raised her kids and built a life for the last 26 years.
Arias and her husband used to pay $1,038 a month for their rent-stabilized apartment, and they never thought they would move again. Arias has bad credit and the money her husband makes as a taxi driver combined with the money she makes as a home health aide isn’t enough to make rent every month over the $1,038. She says it’s simply too difficult for them to move if a security deposit and first month’s rent is also factored into the equation.
“Now, the city does not want to give us more extensions like when we started. They originally told us that until the building was fixed and we would be able to go back, we would be supported but the hotels — no stress and no problems,” Arias says. “But now each week we must fill out the housing log, if you don’t fill it out they can cancel your room. They want me to move to another borough, but I don’t have family in another borough, I don’t have a life in another borough.”
Gonzalez-Rojas believes the delays and barriers the tenants have faced in getting back to their apartments and living in hotels is just a way to drive them out of the community. The buildings were rent-stabilized apartments, a rare find in New York City.
“Jackson Heights is a working-class community, it is an immigrant community, it is a community of people who are hard working but may not earn a lot of money, and this is their home,” she says. “I want this to continue to be their home. We don’t want to see any tricky maneuvers or slick attempts at trying to destabilize a very treasured and important program in New York City that allows for affordability.”
Shortly after the fire, tenants were not allowed to go inside of the building. Only the clean up crew were allowed in. A federal indictment revealed that the Brooklyn gang, ‘The Bloods,’ took over First Response Cleaning Corp., a company that secures and cleans up buildings after fires.They are responsible for stealing many of the tenants’ belongings that were left behind.
According to THE CITY, tenants noticed jewelry, money and valuables missing when they were allowed on a virtual tour via video conference. The owners of the building, Kedex Properties, had hired the company to clean up the building after the fire.
Tenants like Arias, whose apartments were not severely damaged by the fire, were allowed inside the building to retrieve items and noticed money and valuables were gone. Some tenants used the “Find My” app for iPhones and discovered iPads and laptops were at other locations away from the apartment, including other states. Other tenants, most in building 89-07 which was destroyed by the fire, were never allowed back inside due to safety concerns.
“They stole from me, they stole from my neighbors, they were thugs. The landlord herself came and told us ‘Do not worry, you will not lose anything’ and the day things were stolen and the police came, we confronted her. ‘You told us to leave our things because nothing will happen,’” says Arias. “We told her she had hired a group of delinquents, but she told us we couldn’t blame anyone [at the time], now look what’s happening now, it was a gang.”
In the meantime, Arias is holding on to the hope that she will soon go back to her apartment. She can’t wait to finally be back in the comfort of her own home and invite her grandkids over. The tenants have another court date on Aug. 18, where the final verdict on the date that the tenants can return and other negotiations with the landlord will be settled.
“I can’t complain too much because other neighbors have it worse. [I believe] that if you pray and you have faith, you can’t complain about your life,” says Arias. “But I still have these feelings, I have good days and I have bad days. I remind myself not to complain, because [I believe] God knows how much I can handle, God won’t give me anything I can’t handle.”
Contact us at email@example.com if you are interested in helping Rosa Arias and her husband.
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