Resident launches tenant association in building where infants died

Ryan Kelley

Rebecca Sanchez moves a loose board before pushing her son’s stroller up the ramp in front of 710 Hunts Point Avenue.

Nearly eight months after a faulty radiator killed two infant girls inside an apartment at 720 Hunts Point Ave., nothing has been done to improve conditions in the deteriorating building, residents complain. In response to their landlord’s inaction, one resident is taking the initiative.

Anne Martinez, 46, who has lived on the fourth floor of the building for three years, has decided to start a tenants association, and will hold regular meetings to discuss how she and her neighbors can influence change.

“I’m going to work together with the community and whoever it is to hear my voice,” Martinez said. “I’m a voter, I was born here, and I’m going to care for other people. I’ve got seven grandkids, and what happened to those two little toddlers is still in my mind.”

Martinez said she was close to the girls, Scylee Vayoh Ambrose, 1, and Ibanez Ambrose, 2, who died last December in an incident that shook the city. The Ambrose family, which was homeless, was being temporarily housed in a first floor apartment, one of five in the building that the city was using to shelter homeless families.

Martinez said she rushed down when she heard screams coming from the first floor, and was one of the first people on the scene. When she got to the door of apartment 1C, she saw the mother hunched over one of the severely-burned girls “pumping her chest,” she said. The broken radiator had filled the girls’ bedroom with scalding-hot steam, police said on the day of the incident.

Having recently met the family, Martinez had been planning on babysitting for the two girls the following day.

“I have their two little sweaters, I’ll always have them hanging there in my closet,” she said. “I cried for so many days, I couldn’t stop.”

After the incident, Mayor Bill De Blasio visited the building and promised multi-agency investigation to determine what could be done to help prevent similar tragedies. The remaining homeless families were immediately removed from the building, and the mayor has since vowed to eliminate cluster-site shelters completely by 2021. In addition, the City Council introduced several new laws to protect cluster sites against neglect by landlords. Today, there are no homeless families being housed at 720 Hunts Point Avenue.

The Public Advocate’s office placed the landlord, Moshe Piller, on its 100 Worst Landlords list, but he was not criminally charged in the Ambrose deaths. The Department of Buildings shows 36 open violations against 720 Hunts Point Avenue, while the Department of Housing Preservation and Development lists an additional 14 violations, including the windows that won’t stay open in Martinez’s apartment. Most of the violations are for the elevator, which Martinez said breaks down every other day.

Defective appliances are another common complaint in the building. Down the hall from Martinez, Eduardo Perez said that his refrigerator leaks often, and the buildup of water has caused the floor in his kitchen to sink. Perez, 70, describes himself as the “elder statesman” of the building, after living there for 14 years.

“All I have is the Hudson River coming out of there every two days,” Perez said. “I’m going to buy me a rowboat to go through the kitchen to turn on my stove.”

Martinez said she will invite the residents from 710 Hunts Point Avenue next door to join the new the tenants association. That building, also owned by Piller, is in similarly poor condition.

Rebecca Sanchez, who has lived at 710 Hunts Point Avenue for nine years, recites a long list of problems, from multiple holes in the walls, mold on the bathroom wall above the shower, deteriorating floor tiles under a leaky refrigerator and pipes that have separated from the ceiling. Standing on the bowed floor anywhere in her apartment causes the impression that you are standing on a slope. Sanchez says she feels that she and her four children are unsafe there.

Safety, says Martinez is the primary concern of all of her neighbors. Inside her apartment, she is frequent reminded of why she is taking a stand every time her radiator begins to make its customary loud, banging noises. The steam shoots out so violently that it looks like smoke, she said.

“My bed is right next to the radiator, too,” Martinez said.

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