Chinatown Fire Victims Fight Landlord in Court

Steven Vendola had just finished his dinner when he heard the sirens outside. He was already going out to get some air, so he decided to take his dog with him. "I went out with my dog, and I never went back in again," said Vendola. The 81-year-old retired dancer sobbed as he told what has happened to him since he lost his apartment in a fire on April 11, 2010.

The seven alarm blaze tore through two buildings on Grand St. and damaged a third. One person died, dozens were injured and almost 200 people were displaced, ending up with friends and family or in homeless shelters. Today, 12 of those households remain in shelters. Vendola has been able to stay with friends, but he is separated from his dog.

Vendola's building at 289 Grand St. was not condemned after the fire, but the City's Department of Buildings gave an order to vacate. They said it was structurally stable and that the owners could renovate. The day after the fire, the owners gave eviction notices to the tenants. They wanted to tear the building down.

Since the fire, Vendola and the other tenants have only been allowed to enter their apartments a few times to get belongings and they had to obtain court orders allowing them to enter. The tenants complain about harassment from the landlords.

Prior to the fire, tenants had complained about mold, faulty wiring and lack of heat in the winter in the building. There were numerous open violations. Most of the tenants had rent-controlled or rent-regulated apartments. Only one of the 14 units at 289 Grand St. was market rate. If the landlords are allowed to rebuild, the units will not be rent-stabilized.

This Friday, the tenants will continue to fight to get the landlords to repair their apartments. The owners are expected to present evidence that repairs to the building will cost more than the building is worth. Tenants say the cost estimates are overblown.

An attorney for the tenants, John Gorman, is concerned about the outcome of the trial. "Listen, I'm hopeful all the time but I'm not ridiculous," said Gorman. "The landlords see this as a big pay day, not payday immediately but a big opportunity to make a lot of money by getting rid of a lot of rent-regulated tenants," he said.

Christopher Kui, Executive Director of Asian Americans for Equality, has been advocating for those displaced by the fire. He says most of the tenants in Chinatown are immigrants or elderly and they don't often know they can fight the landlords. "We really need to make sure that the people don't suffer continuously," said Kui, "they already suffered enough." Kui said other cases like this one have been resolved in the tenants favor.

Calls for comment to the landlords' attorney were not returned.