Displaced Soho tenants strategize after fire

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  About 30 distraught residents of a Soho building hit by a devastating fire two weeks ago gathered in the basement of St. Anthony’s Church on Sullivan St. Tuesday evening, hoping to learn about their rights and what they might now be facing from their landlord, Joseph Nabavi.

Tenants of 68 Thompson St. were evacuated from the seven-story building on Fri., Aug. 5, after a fire broke out in the basement. The building includes both rent-regulated and market-rate apartments.

The fire’s cause was an electrical problem in the basement, according to Fire Department spokesperson Jim Long. One tenant heard “through the grapevine” that the blaze originated in the basement cafe, which was being renovated, but the Fire Department did not confirm this.

Tenants have been told it could take 10 months or even a year before the building’s vacate order is lifted and they are allowed back into their homes.

Panelists at the Aug. 16 legal forum, organized by Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Office, recommended that the residents band together to form a tenants association in order to collectively file a “Housing Part” lawsuit against Nabavi. Legal action, the panelists explained, could force the owner to correct 68 Thompson’s outstanding maintenance and building code violations, as well as expedite the repairs needed after the fire.

“There’s a process for the owner to file a claim with their insurance. You can push for the process to go faster, and for the repairs to be done properly and correctly,” said Kenneth Lau, an assistant supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services.

John Gorman, a private tenant attorney and legal consultant for Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), suggested that the tenants hire a private investigator to assess the building’s current conditions. Otherwise, he said, the owner could try to take advantage of the incident by claiming a need for unnecessary capital improvements, which could raise rents.

According to Chin’s office, the owner currently lacks the needed permits to make any construction-related changes to the building. Yet a young woman who lives on 68 Thompson’s sixth floor said she walked into the building on the afternoon of Aug. 16 and spotted a construction worker sleeping in an apartment. She also saw repairmen ripping out the walls of her hallway.

In the worst-case scenario, the owner might be trying to convert the whole building into market-rate units or, with city approval, demolish it altogether, Gorman noted.

“This could be a grand stab by this owner to make this a fait accompli by investing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in rehabbing this building immediately, and in the course of it, reconfiguring the units so he can destroy the rent-stabilized units,” he said.

Landlord Nabavi did not return repeated calls for comment.

The building’s rent-regulated tenants, the panelists explained, can apply to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal for a reduction of their monthly rent fee to $1 until they’re allowed to move back in.

“It’s a good, protective device,” Gorman said of the rent-reduction application. “It puts the owner on notice that you’re interested in remaining in the apartment, and it’s officially recognized that you’re asserting your rent-stabilization rights.”

Market-rate tenants, in contrast, might have to litigate for a reimbursement of their rents during the vacate period, since they’re not automatically entitled to compensation, according to panelist Kamilla Sjodin, a supervising attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group.

Residents at the forum also asked about legal reclamation for damages to their personal property — particularly since the landlord is distributing a form to certain tenants, asking them to sign a waiver that would allow him to dispose of their belongings.

“It’s a very complicated question,” Sjodin said, adding that legal action might be required. “If tenants lack renter’s insurance, getting immediate relief is going to be difficult.”

Most of the displaced tenants are living with friends or family while searching for more long-term housing until they can return to 68 Thompson St.

“It’s so surreal, being in this neighborhood tonight and knowing I don’t live here anymore,” said Kathie Cammann, who lived on the building’s first floor for 34 years and is temporarily staying at her mother’s home on Long Island.

Fifth-floor resident Gregory Russo, who grew up in the building, has been separated from his wife and children since the fire.

“I love my apartment and I love the neighborhood,” he said. “It reminds me of being with my grandmother as a little boy.”

Mary Micari, who lives on the second floor, described how she crawled out of her apartment to safety the night of the fire. Among her many belongings that were destroyed, Micari lost a precious box of 1920s Christmas ornaments passed down from her grandmother.

Missing one’s possessions, she said, is disorienting.

“You just want to be in your place, and not be living out of your suitcase,” she said.

She feels lucky, however, to be alive.

“I’m angry, ’cause it could be caused by negligence of the owner, and somebody could have died,” she said.

The Red Cross has provided 11 families with emergency housing at a local hotel, along with emergency funds for basic necessities, such as food and clothing. Three families received additional emergency stipends for basic needs.

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