Downtown Express photo by Vadim Shepel
Flowers and candles outside 22 James St. to remember the two tenants who were killed there last month.
Displaced Chinatown tenants hoping for homes
By Julie Shapiro
Nearly a month after flames shot through the apartment building at 22 James St. and killed two people, some of the former tenants are still struggling to find permanent housing and put their lives back in order.
One tenant keeps waking at 3 a.m., around the time smoke started seeping into apartments as families slept.
Another tenant, Danny Zhao, 38, is adjusting to living elsewhere for the first time in 29 years.
“I lived there all my life pretty much,” Zhao said. “I feel that it belongs to me. My life is in that apartment.”
The four-alarm fire started early in the morning of Feb. 24, ignited by a faulty extension cord in a second-floor apartment. While firefighters arrived on the scene quickly, a cold predawn wind made it difficult to get the fire under control. Tony Wong and Anna Luu, both 32, were killed in the blaze. They shared the apartment where the fire started.
Several tenants spoke to Downtown Express last Friday after a meeting Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver held to address their lingering concerns. Silver’s chief goal is to ensure that tenants can return to their apartments as soon as possible.
But there may not be a building for the tenants to return to. The landlord, David Chen, has not decided whether to repair the building or tear it down, said Christopher Fusco, Chen’s attorney. Part of the roof collapsed and the fire scorched the back of the building, Fusco said.
It would take “many, many months” of work to make the building habitable, said Joseph Rosenberg, a deputy commissioner with the city Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development. “The damage was extensive.”
Silver said tenants have the right to return to their apartments and pay the same rents they were paying before the fire, but Fusco said they would not have that right if the building were torn down. Fusco promised that the landlord would follow all the regulations that apply to his rent-controlled tenants.
Some of the tenants may move into other buildings the landlord owns or apply for federal housing vouchers, Rosenberg said.
Zhao is among those who want to return to 22 James St. He shared his apartment with his father, wife and 2-year-old son and said the memories alone are reason to go back. He also wants to hold on to the $700-a-month rent he paid for the one and a half bedrooms.
More immediately, Zhao wants to return to his apartment to retrieve a metal box where he stored important documents and his wedding photos. The fire gutted his apartment and the rest of his family’s belongings are destroyed, he said.
Fusco said the landlord opened the building to tenants several days after the fire, and he is working with the city to give tenants another opportunity to safely enter the building.
Of the 19 families living in the building, five requested and received housing from the city, while the others found a place to live on their own. Zhao and his family are living with his brother after a short stay in a city center in Brownsville that he said was inconvenient.
Erin Spadola, a student, shared a two-and-a-half bedroom apartment with two roommates on the building’s sixth floor. They paid $1,800 a month and moved in at the beginning of February, just three weeks before the fire.
Spadola is now living with a friend in Brooklyn and said she has no desire to return to 22 James St. if it is ever repaired.
“I don’t know if I can sleep there again comfortably,” Spadola said.
Spadola was the first of her roommates to wake up on the night of the fire. She ran first to the fire escape, which had flames shooting up it, and then to her door, which she opened to a corrosive cloud of thick black smoke. She remembers hysterically pressing her face against an open window screen, trying to breathe.
Spadola and her roommates finally piled onto the fire escape when the wind shifted, leaving a few square feet of safe space. Then, when the flames approached again, they climbed the fire escape to the roof and jumped to the roof of another building, eventually making it down safely. Spadola went to the hospital twice for smoke inhalation.
Since the fire, Spadola has been organizing the tenants and acting as their spokesperson, since many are not fluent in English.
“There was nothing we could do the night of the fire,” Spadola said. “We thought we were going to die…. People were screaming in the flames. Now if I can help them, I want to do that.”