A Burnt Out Hallway at a NYCHA Building for Seniors Was Not Cleaned Up for 7 Weeks, Until One Tweet Changed It All

A NYCHA worker cleans up the second floor of the William Reid Apartments. Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

 

EAST FLATBUSH – Residents of a large East Flatbush NYCHA building for seniors lived on a severely fire-damaged floor for nearly two months, until a tweet from State Senator Zellnor Myrie prompted NYCHA into quick action.

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Myrie told Bklyner that he discovered the extensive fire damage on the second floor of the William Reid Apartments, located at 728 East New York Avenue, Wednesday night, when he was conducting a previously scheduled walking tour of the development. At that point, around 7:15 p.m., he tweeted a video showing off the extent of the damage, and gave NYCHA an ultimatum: that if the situation was not dealt with within 24 hours, “there will be hell to pay.”

William Reid Apartments. Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

NYCHA cleanup crews showed up at noon on Thursday, 17 hours later, finally washing the soot off of the walls, ceiling, and floor, as well as residents’ doors. In a statement, NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio said that painting should be finished tomorrow. The second floor still smells of smoke from the fire that took place on August 24. 

“The onus is placed on the elected official to reach out to NYCHA, even though the tenants who are experiencing health hazards had reached out to NYCHA,” Myrie said in an interview. “That is their primary constituency. They’ve been reaching out for seven weeks, there was no response, and now the onus is on me to reach out directly to NYCHA? That’s not how it goes. This is an egregious situation, and it is an emergency that requires an emergency-like response.”

The emergency response, Myrie said, should be an immediate evacuation.

“There’s so many residual impacts that are happening,” he said. “And it’s well known that when there’s a fire, there are chemicals that are burned. We have no idea the air that they’re breathing, so I think that they should be immediately evacuated.”

Myrie said tenants told him it started from garbage left on the floor.

Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

Serina Lezama, the president of the building’s tenant association, said the damage was mostly contained to the second floor — where some residents had to be hospitalized — but that smoke reached up to the top floor of the 20-story building. She said that she reached out to NYCHA immediately to ask about the cause of the fire but didn’t get any answers, and afterwards she didn’t hear anything until Myrie tweeted the video.

“I didn’t get no information from New York City Housing,” Lezama said. She added that the building did not have a property manager at the time, causing the damage to go unfixed. A new manager came in and looked into the problem,“But still, nothing is not being done like it should,” she said.

Bklyner joined a tour of the second floor with Myrie and Lezama. While the floor was covered for the cleanup, you could see the ceiling, walls, and residents’ doors were extensively blackened by soot. Cable wires running along the walls were severely damaged, with protective covering in some cases scorched off to show bare wire. A cleanup worker said that while it poses little safety concern, residents have been unable to watch television since the fire.

Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

 

Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

Brancaccio initially responded to Myrie’s video with a 7:45 a.m. statement, largely consisting of criticism of Myrie’s tweeting a video before contacting the housing authority. 

“We hope moving forward, the Senator will contact us directly about issues concerning his community to ensure residents receive accurate information, and also so we can solve problems collaboratively,” she said. Myrie called the statement “unfortunate.”

Brancaccio later provided an updated statement to Bklyner, which was also tweeted, saying that NYCHA was “looking into the delays and will take appropriate action.”

“NYCHA is working hard to address these kinds of challenges, and to change the way we do business,” Brancaccio said. “And we hope the Senator and all of the elected officials we work with will remain in close contact with us as we resolve these issues.”

A spokesperson for the FDNY did not respond to a request for comment.

Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

Assemblymember Diana Richardson, in an interview with Bklyner, said that NYCHA had stepped in to make repairs as a result of attention from politicians and the media. She lamented that not only agencies but even tenants had not informed her office, the latter because of a pattern of neglect for problems in communities of color.

“No one, not NYCHA, not the tenants’ association, not the FDNY, not the NYPD. No one called us.”

Richardson said that she attended a tenants’ association meeting at the complex two weeks ago but tenants didn’t notify her of the fire damage, a symptom of what she deemed normalization of suffering in districts like hers.

“No one said anything,” Richardson told Bklyner. “I’m bugged out. The pain is normalized for them, the lack of service is normalized for them. That it would be appropriate to wait seven weeks for a cleanup.”

For comparison, here’s what the 3rd floor hallway looks like. Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner

This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of the Reid Apartments tenant association president’s name. It is Serina Lezama, not Serena Lecama.

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Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared in Gotham Gazette, City & State, and Gothamist. Reach out to him via email at benbrachfeld@bklyner.com, or on Twitter @benbrachfeld.

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