Brooklyn tenants still fighting for resolution 6 years after fire
Pauline Bygrave, 66, says she is still recovering from a massive fire that tore through her rent-stabilized building in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in 2012.
Six years later, Bygrave and her husband have relocated for a second time. But her son remains in Florida, where she sent him after frantically moving from the two-bedroom to a one-bedroom in Midwood following the fire.
Bygrave said she is seeking compensation from her old landlord at 665 New York Ave. for damaged valuables — as well as aiming to reach an agreement related to her rent-stabilized lease, which she pays $1 a month to maintain.
“It’s not good — I mean, you have to take your savings, and pay the rent,” said Bygrave. “It’s not his fault or our fault, but give the people their things, and let them go their ways.”
Bygrave is one of a dozen ousted households that filed a lawsuit last week against the property’s owner, Kings & Queens Holdings, LLC, seeking millions.
As the tenants press their case in court, Kings & Queens Holdings has begun preliminary discussions with city officials about rebuilding, lobbying records show. The firm says it would cost more to repair the dilapidated building than to knock it down and start over. The landlord is interested in rezoning the property so it could replace the structure with an apartment building of the same size — or larger.
Steven Wagner, an attorney for the tenants, said Kings & Queens Holdings let the residence deteriorate for six years, and is taking action now that the neighborhood is home to more sought after addresses. He said the landlord should prioritize resolving the concerns of his clients, whom he described as having a range of needs, with one lacking a permanent home while another has purchased a residence elsewhere.
“In all these years, they haven’t really helped any tenants,” Wagner said. “Now they’re asking the city to help them.”
Wagner said his clients have launched three lawsuits against the landlord in a bid to compel the firm to fix a slew of building violations and to compensate them for leases on uninhabitable apartments, as well as for the cost of moving and other expenses incurred since the July 26, 2012 fire.
A $23 million lawsuit filed in 2015 alleges that Kings & Queens Holdings failed to sufficiently fireproof the building. That complaint alleges the landlord failed to provide adequate security, which lead to the residents’ apartments being ransacked. Wagner said some of his clients lost valuable property, including vintage stereo equipment and protected coral.
Joshua Eisenberg, executive vice president at the parent company of Kings & Queens Holdings, said his company worked diligently to help tenants find affordable apartments, including by offering them discounted rates. He said the landlord worked with the city to allow residents to don hard hats and other protective equipment so they could search for possessions in a building that he said was never “recoverable.” And Eisenberg argued that the vast majority of the 117 households at 665 New York Ave. had reached a resolution with the landlord.
“There are maybe 28 tenants left, a small group of which are represented by one lawyer who has continued to adjourn the process, and it’s unfortunate,” Eisenberg said. “We would really love to be in a position where we could redevelop it into brand-new, affordable housing that the neighborhood desperately needs.”
Respect Brooklyn, a community group, noticed Kings & Queens Holdings had spent a total of $18,115.50 since 2017 on lobbying city agencies, and issued a statement accusing the firm of paying “lobbyists who make more in an hour than what displaced tenants pay for one month’s rent.”
Eisenberg said the firm had to file lobbying paperwork simply to ask the city about the site.
Shortly after the 117-unit building opened around 1960 at 665 New York Ave., the area was rezoned. Today, a new structure could only have 80-odd units, Eisenberg estimated.
“It is frustrating that in order to get from A to B and deliver a lot more brand-new affordable housing to the neighborhood, that you have to have a lot of experts supporting you along the way,” Eisenberg said. “It’s also unfortunate that we have to spend a lot of money on legal costs.”
Eisenberg said it would be viable to construct a market-rate building with 80 or so units. But he said a larger scale would be necessary to deliver affordable units. Eisenberg, however, declined to specify what he meant by affordable housing, other than noting the city’s current framework would not be conducive to creating an entirely rent-stabilized building.
Kings & Queens Holdings is not close to crafting formal plans for the site or submitting any applications, according to Eisenberg.
The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development said it did not currently have record of anyone displaced by the fire living in a shelter. The department said if it hammered out any sort of an agreement with Kings & Queens Holdings, it would aim to reserve apartments for any former residents that wished to return.
“The owner of this property came to HPD to have preliminary discussions about redeveloping the building,” HPD spokesman Matthew Creegan said in a statement. “We fully support the development of affordable housing wherever possible, and will fully support any plan that is in the best interest of the tenants at this building and the larger community.”
New York State Homes and Community Renewal, which oversees rent regulations, declined to answer several questions on the record about the rights of those displaced at 665 New York Ave., as well as the landlord.