Ditmas Park Neighbors Still Homeless a Year After Fire

Ditmas Park Neighbors Still Homeless a Year After Fire
Tuesday rally. Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner.

DITMAS PARK — Tenants and housing advocates protested outside Brooklyn Housing Court on Tuesday, on the one-year anniversary of a Ditmas Park fire at 180 E 18 St that left 18 families homeless. The tenants remain displaced despite a January 31 court-mandated deadline for repairs that landlord Juda Rosenfeld, of JBM Estates, failed to meet. Tenants worry he will blow past the February 29 extension as well.

The protesters accuse Rosenfeld of negligence and the courts of bias after the court declined to hold him in contempt for missing the deadline.

“It seems the entire housing court has a reputation for siding with landlords,” said Sabrina Francois, an organizer with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition.

Rosenfeld failed to repair the building by the court-imposed deadline of January 31, 2020. Judge Remy Smith granted JBM Estates an extension to February 29. Meanwhile, tenants remain displaced from their homes.

Tuesday rally. Ben Brachfeld/Bklyner.

If a landlord fails to comply with a court order to improve conditions in a building, then the Department of Housing Protection and Development (HPD) can seek to punish the landlord with a contempt of court proceeding that can lead to fines or imprisonment.

“I’d like for the judge to listen to the tenants and stop siding with those in power,” said Esperanza Peña, a 30-year tenant of the building, who spoke in Spanish through a translator.

Two fires ravaged the Ditmas Park building, at the corner of Albemarle Rd and East 18th St, on the morning of February 25, 2019. The fires were caused by electrical issues, and traveled down one side of the building, destroying 18 of the building’s 36 apartments. The other 18 apartments remain occupied, though tenants say the conditions in the building for the non-damaged units remain unsatisfactory and the building has 386 open violations with HPD, according to a department spokesperson.

HPD records reveal a slew of issues with JBM Estates properties. Residents of 180 East 18th St filed 127 complaints against the management company in the past year alone. The many complaints by residents paint a bleak picture of living space with damaged facilities, pest infestations, and frequent heat and hot water outages.

Firefighters rushed to extinguish a fire at 180 East 18th Street in Ditmas Park in 2018. Todd Maisel/Bklyner

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shut down repairs on the building in June due to the risk of lead exposure from paint. HPD imposed their own stop-work orders in August and November of last year due to construction without permits. These were lifted this January after JBM Estates obtained the proper paperwork, but just a month later the city issued another stop-work order due to an inadequate Tenant Protection Plan, this time only for a day. According to HPD, there are no current stop-work orders.

HPD is also suing the landlord over tenant harassment claims, with the intention of forcing corrections of the open violations. The case goes to court next month.

“HPD is using the full force of its enforcement powers at this address, including bringing the owner to court to improve conditions for tenants,” said HPD spokesperson Matthew Creegan in an emailed statement. “We will continue to closely monitor the building and support the tenants.”

Creegan said HPD registered seven families for relocation services – placement in family centers or single-room-occupancy hotels, and “owners may be responsible for HPD shelter expenses that result from residential displacement due to fires or city-issued vacate orders”, HPD website states.

Francois said displaced residents were offered shelter in the Bronx — a disruptive move for residents who still had jobs, friends and family members in Brooklyn. Most now live with relatives. Many stayed in the city, whereas others moved as far away as Florida.

Tenants at 180 East 18th St. are being relocated after a fire ripped through the building Monday morning. By Todd Maisel
Tenants at 180 East 18th St. are being relocated after the fire ripped through the building in 2018. Todd Maisel/Bklyner.

Tenants at the protest say the landlord has not maintained contact with the tenants since the fire.

Online reviews reveal a pattern of dissatisfaction with JBM Estates. The company has a one-star rating on Yelp, Porch.com and the Better Business Bureau website as well as a slew of scathing reviews.

Bklyner called every listed number at JBM Estates during business hours. One person picked up, only to transfer us to a person who did not answer, and then did not pick up again. No email is available online. We also reached out to their lawyer, Scott Gross, but received no response.

Rosenfeld ranks at number 71 on Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’s 2019 Worst Landlords Watchlist.

“Since the fire started, the landlord has said nothing,” said Marie Justin, a 37-year tenant of the building, who spoke in Haitian Creole through a translator.

Justin said that she has been staying at her daughter’s house since the fire. She feels let down by the landlord and judge’s repeated promises that she will soon be able to return to her apartment.

“It’s been one year,” said Justin. “I want to go home.”