By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Usually when there is a residential fire, it monopolizes headlines for a few days, money is raised via platforms like GoFundMe, and then … coverage fades as the news cycle inevitably continues. But what happens to the victims? Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado set out to speak with those affected by the 89th Street fire, which engulfed two Jackson Heights apartment buildings in early April.
When Rosa Arias sees fire trucks with their lights and sirens fly past her, she makes the sign of the cross to herself, praying that those trucks aren’t heading somewhere she knows. This past April, Arias had just left her apartment and was walking down Northern Boulevard in Queens when the sirens of a passing fire truck drowned out her phone call with a friend. When she finally heard what her friend was trying to tell her, what she dreaded the most had come true.
“My friend told me, ‘go back home, your building is on fire,’ ” Arias said. Initially, she thought it was some sort of joke, but her friend was adamant: “For God’s sake! Those firefighters are coming here!”
On April 6, 2021, an eight-alarm fire engulfed two buildings in Jackson Heights, Queens. The fire began in a sixth-floor apartment at about 1 p.m., changing the lives of about 300 residents who lived in the connecting buildings 89-07 and 89-11 in an instant. No fire alarms rang, and many residents found out about the fire through the tenants’ Whatsapp chat, while others smelled smoke and went downstairs, not realizing how much damage the fire would inflict, not realizing that would be the last time they would see their homes. Twenty one people were injured, including 16 firefighters.
“The standard protocol for people affected by fires or floods or anything that displaces you from your home in the city is three to five days in a hotel covered by the Red Cross. And then you have a referral to a [Housing Preservation and Development] (HPD) shelter,” said Andrew Sokolof Diaz, co-founder and co-president of 89 Street Tenants Unions Association, who has been at the forefront of it all, fighting for assistance for the tenants.
The tenants have faced numerous hurdles for a place to live from the start. Tenants who chose to go into shelters had two choices, said Sokolof Diaz; a family shelter for people with kids 17 years old and younger, where you have your own kitchen, bathroom and some semblance of privacy — or a dormitory style shelter for those 18 years or older.
“If you’re just adults in the home, let’s say you turned 18 that day of the fire—which had happened to one or two tenants—you’re no longer going to a family shelter [but you] go to a single room occupancy hotel kind of location, with communal bathrooms—during Covid” he said.
Worst of all, there are no HPD shelters in Queens, so families like Arias’s have been displaced in hotels and shelters all over the city, far away from the place they call home. Unfortunately, there is nothing the families can do about the distance of the hotels.
Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, representing District 34, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside in Queens, has been working alongside the tenants from the start. From going to protests, to personally driving tenants to and from the building and the hotel immediately after the fire, has done as much as she could for the tenants but she said that options on helping with housing are limited.
“There’s contracts with certain hotels and a lot of them were at JFK instead of LaGuardia … unfortunately, the contracts depend on the relationship between the city and the hotel. We pressed them over and over and over again to get them closer to the community that they live, work and raise their families in.”
Arias, 52, and her husband lived in their apartment in building 89-11 for 25 years. It was where they raised their three kids and where Arias first began working as a babysitter. They had recently spent three months saving up to remodel her rental apartment, since it was in bad shape. Shortly after they did, the fire destroyed it all.
Currently, Arias, her husband and her dog are all living at the Tillary Hotel in Brooklyn. Arias had Covid-19 before the fire, and is dealing with lingering symptoms, including fatigue. She now has to commute to Jackson Heights, where she works as a home attendant, from Brooklyn everyday, leaving her exhausted.
Tenants like Arias have had to start from scratch and living in a hotel poses numerous issues. Without access to a kitchen or stove, meals have become Arias’s main expense.
“I wish they would have looked for more accessible places in our borough. I’m not in my borough; I’m in a place that if I would have gone four or five times in 35 years, it would have been a lot,” she said. “Over here there are no supermarkets, nothing. Where I am [each meal] costs $20. And that’s $20, seven days a week, multiplied by three. I don’t have that kind of income.”
Arias also takes care of her 90-year-old father, who lives about a block away from Arias’s old building, and before the fire she had been paying for a piece of land at a cemetery for her father to rest when he passes, but transportation and food costs have been eating up her savings, and she can’t meet her monthly payment to the cemetery.
“That was my goal. I wanted something so that when God willing my father passes, I would be able to have a place where I can put him in peace, tranquility. But I can’t do that anymore.”
Arias was one of the few lucky residents who was able to get some of her belongings from the building.
“[I rescued] my photos, the memories of my kids, my family memories and my documents. Material things come and go, but those are things you can’t recover if you lose them,” she said.
Yet, the effects of the fire go deeper than the material; Arias, like many tenants, has been struggling with her mental health.
“It’s all very bad. I’m really bad,” she said. “I have talked to my doctor and he is going to send me to therapy. But this is something so big that if you don’t live it, you don’t understand.”
Sokolof Diaz explained that the Red Cross was supposed to provide mental health services immediately.
“I think they give you a one-time kind of consultation. But there was really no referral service. There’s no follow up. There’s nothing to ensure that folks are actually getting mental health care that they need,” he said.
Sokolof Diaz was also a tenant in the building, and he and his family lost everything. It took a week before someone contacted him regarding mental health resources.
“There’s so much stigma around mental health, especially in the Latino community. If I’m not getting Red Cross support, then I can imagine our neighbors are not getting it,” he said. “I spoke to a neighbor yesterday, [they said] ‘You know, my kids are still not well. They wake up with nightmares, screaming, ‘fire, fire.’’ Kids are so affected by it … it’s been really hard. For the adults, obviously too. But the kids internalize that differently. And we knew this and they really all failed us in that aspect.”
But the Red Cross can only do so much.
“The Red Cross assistance is mostly in those hours, days and weeks afterwards. [Then we] try to connect people to the longer term assistance, whether it’s from the city or other nonprofits, and other help that may be out there,” said Michael de Vulpillieres, a communications officer with the organization. “We also had mental health staff available when the residents went back into their building to retrieve belongings that were obviously going to be really traumatic. If you’re looking at your burned out home for the first time in days or weeks.”
Santiago Toaquiza has seen the impact the fire had on kids firsthand; he has a four-year-old son. The Toaquiza family has gone through a lot this past year; they moved — amid a global pandemic — from Ecuador to New York eight months ago.
“We were just starting a new life in this country, then this tragedy happened, I don’t wish it on anybody,” Toaquiza said. He was at work when his wife called him to tell him there was a fire. She smelled something burning, and quickly grabbed her son, their jackets and went downstairs — they didn’t have time to think about grabbing papers or documents. They didn’t know when they would see their apartment again, however, Toaquiza was one of the lucky residents from building 89-11 who was permitted to go in and retrieve some things a few weeks after the fire, but his apartment was unrecognizable.
The family was placed in the Radisson Hotel, near JFK airport, and although they are still in Queens, the hotel is one hour away from their old neighborhood via public transportation. Toaquiza works in construction in Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights. The commute is much longer and more costly; before he could just walk to work.
The Toaquiza family had decided to settle in Jackson Heights because of the large Latino community. There aren’t many affordable food places near the hotel, and even fewer places that serve the Hispanic food the family is used to. Food delivery services like UberEats or Seamless are an option but are too expensive for a family that just came to the U.S. and is building their life again.
While some people lost all their documents in the fire, Toaquiza was able to get an emergency appointment with the Ecuadorian consulate, where he was able to recover his Ecuadorian ID and other important documents.
The future is unknown to the Toaquiza family, they are taking everything one day at a time. Their son starts school soon, and getting him from the hotel to Jackson Heights will be an additional struggle. Toaquiza hopes to find an apartment or studio, but it has been hard to do because of the pandemic.
“Our personal request from now on is that we only want to find something to live in,” he said. “It’s very complicated with a child, if we find a basement they say ‘no because you have children.’ We walked around looking for a place when the weather was very hot. We were walking, looking, desperately because we didn’t know if they were going to give us an extension.”
Some families haven’t had the chance to step foot into their homes again. The building at 89-07, was the most affected, and because of the severe damage families haven’t been able to return at all.
“No one’s ever gone back in to retrieve anything on the top two floors, the fifth and sixth, were basically completely destroyed,” Sokolof Diaz said.
The building’s owner declared the building as a “total loss.” Many former residents believe that the landlord wants to tear it down, unclear if by tearing it down he will sell the property or build a new structure. While this type of situation may leave tenants feeling powerless, they do have rights.
“New York City has a long history of landlords benefitting from fires and collecting money from that and not fixing the buildings back or selling the property after that. So I always just tell the tenants to sue the landlord in housing court,” said Genesis Aquino, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, an organization who works with tenants to preserve and protect affordable housing in New York State.
Sokolof, along with 61 other tenants, have done just that. Represented by The Legal Aid Society, they were finally heard in court yesterday, requesting that the landlord fix all the violations, allow tenants to go in and grab their belongings, and make sure they are repairing the building.
“We will be in court for many months with this Housing Preservation action,” Sokolof said. “The judge basically ordered the owner’s attorney to do an independent investigation with the Department of Buildings of each apartment to decide access instead of this blanket denial and total loss claim by the owner.” They will be back in court in three weeks, where the judge will establish how much time the owner has to complete the inspection.
It’s been a long and painful process for these families. Just yesterday, they had to fight the Department of Housing and Preservation for their hotel extension, which they succeeded in getting for another month. They must do so on the 20th of each month, and they don’t know if their stays will be extended until the day of.
“It’s just wrong that we normalize [the trend of not having extensions known until around the 20th of each month]” said Sokolof, “It’s been really hectic. There were two families that never got extended, I had to press the hotel to let them in their rooms. [It was] insane.”
These stories are just a few of the 300 tenants that were affected by the fire. Their lives were completely changed and nearly half a year later, they are still dealing with the effects of the fire, and will probably continue to do so for years to come.
“[I miss] everything. Coming home and being in the peacefulness of my house. Being able to take off my clothes, and put them in a place where they belong. [I miss having a place where] I can rest, I can have a cup of tea, I can sit and watch TV on the channel I want—there’s no Hispanic channel in the hotel,” Arias said. “It’s strange being here.”
The best way you can help these families is by donating to their GoFundMe campaign and signing their petition for human housing. You can stay up to date with what 89 Street Tenants Unidos Association is doing by following them on Instagram.