WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
The Bronx District Attorney is probing the cause of a fire in the Belmont section of the borough that injured eight and killed three — including a 12-year-old boy, a spokesman for DA Robert Johnson confirmed.
The fatal Monday morning fire that tore through a three-story row house at 2321 Prospect Avenue has shed light on the challenge the city faces when it comes to distressed properties. The house had a record of complaints and Con Edison confirmed that they had cut power to the structure on April 14 because they did not know who lived in the building.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the FDNY has confirmed the multi-family house was illegally subdivided and that access to the fire escapes was illegally blocked.
"The real disgrace here is building owners who put profits ahead of peoples lives by illegally converting apartments to make more money and allowing extremely dangerous conditions to persist," the mayor said.
City records indicate the Belmont section row house is owned by a Domingo Cedano. Cedano was not available for comment. Court records indicate some foreclosure activity but no change of ownership. The city's Department of Finance said the property taxes are current.
Bloomberg said at a press availability that it's hard for the city to to get into buildings even when it suspects there are building violations.
"Unless we can get a court order you don't have to let us into the building," Bloomberg said. "That's what the fourth amendment to the Constitution is all about and the standards are very high."
Bloomberg said the city issues about 20,000 complaints a year but can only get access to half the buildings it needs to get into. When a property is in some stage of foreclosure that can be further complicated. Court record show at least two foreclosures on the same property.
Benjamin Dulchin with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development said his analysis of the public court record show that the mortgage on 2321 Prospect Avenue was held as part of a mortgage-backed security and that the foreclosure process had advanced pretty for along. But it had not been finalized with a change in ownership.
He said mortgage-backed securities tend to take "the responsible party three or four steps removed from the day to day experience of the building."
Dulchin said sometime banks will start foreclosure but than not follow through "because they don't want to actually have the liability of having the house or don't think it is worth that much will kind of just let it float along in limbo and than inevitably the property becomes distressed, drags the neighborhood down around it and bad things can happen."