Longwood fire exposes building’s problems

Damage at 941 Intervale Ave. was extensive following a Dec. 7 fire.

Blaze hurts five, leaves many more wondering what’s next

A Dec. 9 blaze that injured five residents, two seriously, in a Longwood apartment building has tenants and advocates pointing to city policies they say are enriching a management company but show little regard for tenant safety.

Residents and local officials say conditions in the building were grim even before the fire. Now, after returning, they are nervous that the building’s smoke-tinged air is unsafe to breathe.

Aguila Inc., the non-profit that manages the building at 941 Intervale Ave. damaged by the fire, specializes in placing homeless residents in apartments in privately-owned buildings across the Bronx while they look for permanent housing. The city’s Department of Homeless Services pays management companies like Aguila handsomely for overseeing the tenants and maintaining the buildings.

Aguila’s CEO is Robert Hess, who directed the Department of Homeless Services under Mayor Bloomberg until resigning in 2010. Its executive director, according to a version of the company’s website cached last February, is Peter Rivera Jr., the son of Peter Rivera, the state’s commissioner of labor, although his name no longer appears on the working website.

The fire broke out at 5:30 p.m. that Sunday when a child tossed a lit match on a pile of discarded mattresses tenants say were left lying in the lobby for days. It quickly spread through the six-story building, forcing frantic tenants to flee.

Tenants were allowed back in around 10:30 that evening after firefighters doused the blaze. Firefighters had to break down several doors to gain entry to apartments. The open doors attracted thieves who stole several pricey items, such as computers, before police from the 41st Precinct were deployed to watch the apartments overnight after residents returned.

“I can’t believe I made it out alive,” said Carmen Torres, one of just a handful of rent-paying tenants left in the building. She  opened her door when she smelled smoke, but a thick cloud of smoke forced her back inside. Firefighters helped her get out of the building.

“I don’t know how people live here,” Torres said, adding that after 40 years, conditions have deteriorated so badly she wants to leave.

Javier Irizarry, 35, also a renter, said he’s not surprised an unsupervised child caused the fire.

“The kids run around alone. Nobody watches them,” he said.

Along with the few remaining renters, about 40 homeless families housed by the city in recent years live in the building. Two formerly homeless tenants who asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation, said the city pays Aguila Inc. about $3,000 a month for their rent. In return, they get a table, a few chairs, a couch, a dresser, bunk beds, and, theoretically, help finding permanent housing.

But one formerly homeless resident who says she has lived in the building with her husband and two teenagers for a year said few services have been offered.

“I don’t think anyone should be there. It’s not livable,” said the woman, who is in her 50s. She wore surgical mask as she left the building while contractors worked on the charred walls in the lobby.

“I don’t want anyone to give me anything on a silver platter. I’m lucky to have a roof over my head,” she said, adding that although her husband works, his income has not been enough to land an apartment.

Aguila has done little to help, she said. “They’re supposed to have a housing specialist. They tell you things you can find out on your own,” she said, adding she has seen the housing worker twice in a year, both times by chance.

On its website, Aguila Inc. lists 32 Bronx shelters it manages, and declares its mission is to “provide adequate transitional housing” for homeless families, and to “enhance each family’s ability to establish an independent living status.”

But according to Diana Stewart, a social worker and member of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith group that helps immigrants, the city’s lax oversight of long term shelters makes it hard for formerly homeless tenants to get out, while greedy landlords profit.

“The city has set up a terrible system and there’s no accountability,” said Stewart, who has helped one of the homeless residents at 941 Intervale impacted by the fire, whom, she adds, has gotten no help from Aguila in the months she has been in the building.

The Department of Buildings lists 57 complaints and 21 open violations for 941 Intervale Ave.

The city’s Department of Finance lists the building’s owner as a Maryland-based cell phone company, Unisonsite LLC, but the Department of Housing Preservation and Development website lists 941 Intervale Realty LLC as owner and Nate Folman as head officer. None have publicly available working phone numbers.

In response to an email request from the Express for comment, Aguila deferred to the Department of Homeless Services. That agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Rafael Salamanca, District Manager of Community Board 2, who visited tenants in their apartments when they called to complain about conditions three days after the fire, says what he saw was “disgusting,” with corrosion in bathrooms, dingy rooms and hallways and torn furniture. Salamanca doubts the Department of Homeless Services oversees the site as carefully as it claims to. One renter who has lived in the building for decades told Salamanca the building’s landlord offered her $6000 to move out of the building.

A security guard and office workers at Aguila next door angrily shooed away visitors trying to see the building and inquire about repairs five days after the fire, but refused to say why.

The story was updated on Dec. 18 to reflect that a tenant told Community Board 2 District Manager Rafael Salamanca that the landlord, not an Aguila representative, offered her $6000 to move out of the building, and again on Jan. 10th.

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