Fire Blazes at Combustible Wood-Framed 101 West 85th Street Brockholst

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On Christmas Eve morning, 2012, Mary Gaydos, a rent controlled tenant allegedly received her buyout check and deposited it into her bank account. Around 9:55 a.m., a tenant on the other side of the 6th floor smelled smoke and called 911. Mary Gaydos had fled the inferno in her apartment without knocking on any of her neighbors’ doors (some of whom she had known for more than 30 years) to warn them while leaving the front door to her apartment wide open. She moved to Ohio thereafter.

The Fire Department arrived within 3 minutes; Some firemen cut a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape. Other firemen walked up the stairs with the hose ready while others evacuated apartments. Some climbed the ladder as shown in the photo, above. At least one person was carried by them down the stairs to safety.  She was later treated for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning at Roosevelt Hospital. It took the firemen approximately one hour to contain the fire.

According to the Fire Department Incident Report, the building is a non-fireproof structure. While the cause of the fire is listed as “Electrical Wiring” on the Fire Incident Report, the Detector Type, Power, and Operation are listed as Undetermined. Under the Fire Incident Report’s Origin and Extension, it states: “No Access” and Physical examination precluded due to evidence and fire area being cleaned up prior to the arrival of the undersigned investigator.” 

Click here to review the reports.

One of the tenants graciously sent these photos of the apartment after the fire:

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How To Organize a Tenants Association

Some of the tenants of the buildings listed on the Property Profiles page (linked on the tab, above) have already organized. However, if you have not started your tenants association yet, the following (reprinted from the Tenants & Neighbors web site) may be of assistance to you. Eventually, all tenants of these buildings will have the opportunity to join a building-wide alliance.

Step One: Examine your building carefully – get a feel for it
• How many units are there?
• How many tenants in the building?
• What kind of tenants are they
(rent controlled, rent stabilized, Section 8, etc.)
• Are repairs being neglected?
• Does the building lack heat, hot water or other basic services?
• Is there are a problem with building staff?
• Are there security issues in the building?

Step Two: Involve Your Neighbors
Start talking to your neighbors, both people you know and those you see in the elevator or hallways. You may find it difficult at first, but don’t be afraid or embarrassed. Chances are that people share your concerns. The worst that can happen is that they will not be interested. If you are really serious about organizing a tenant association, you will have to talk to people you don’t know at some point, so you might as well start now.

Tell your neighbors that you want to discuss whether the building can benefit from a tenant association. Ask them if they are interested in attending a meeting and ask them to start thinking about common needs and problems. Exchange names and telephone numbers and let them know when you will contact them about the meeting. (Keep a list so that you don’t leave anyone out.) Call the meeting within one or two weeks following these conversations so that interest doesn’t wane.

Now that you have a core group of people (4-5 is a good start) who have expressed an interest in talking about organizing your building, you are ready for a preliminary meeting to discuss forming a tenant association.

Step Three: The Preliminary Meeting
This meeting can be held in your apartment. Offer some refreshments if you can – coffee, tea and cookies are fine. Don’t start “business” right away. Let people have the opportunity to talk to each other first.
When you’re ready, introduce yourself and ask others to tell a little about themselves: how long they have lived in the building, what their interests are, and why they came to the meeting. You may be the only person to have spoken to everyone, so it’s important to share information. Give an overview of what you noted about the building. Encourage everyone to speak, but at this stage discourage people from discussing priorities.

Key Questions To Raise
• Why organize a tenant association?
• Are there common needs/problems in the building?
• What would be the purpose of a tenant association?
• What does each person want the tenant association to accomplish?

Keep in mind that this meeting is only a beginning. You may all decide that the time is not ripe for a tenant association. If, though, things seem to be moving along well, discuss calling a second, planning meeting. Ask each person to bring one additional person to the planning meeting, ideally to be held the following week. (Try not to wait more than two weeks for the next meeting.) Ask if someone else would like to host the meeting.

Step Four-A: The Planning Meeting
Basically, the process at this meeting will resemble the first, but because new people will be there, it is important to encourage their participation and ideas. Ask the new people to identify what is important to them in the building, and as a group rank issues in order of importance. Make a written list. Include any issues raised during the first meeting. Keep in mind that though this group is setting priorities it is still a small group, and these priorities are only tentative.

With this larger group of people you have the makings of a steering committee for the tenant association, though you still don’t have a tenant association yet. Begin thinking about calling a full meeting of all the tenants in your building.

Step Four-B: The Planning Meeting
How Will The Meeting Be Advertised?
Generally, a flier – a one-page announcement – is the best way to publicize the meeting. Someone on the steering committee may have an artistic skill and can design the flier. A computer can make creating fliers easier but you can do it by hand. If you’re really having trouble, you can ask a Tenants & Neighbors organizer for assistance.
In designing the flier, make sure that the DATE, TIME and PLACE of the meeting jump out at the reader. Try not to make the flier too wordy – people should know what the meeting is about by just glancing at the flier. Use simple phrases, such as:
‘Tenant Alert: Meeting to discuss forming a Tenant Association
Or
Come and Meet Your Neighbors!’
It’s a good idea to include the name and telephone number of a steering committee member in case your neighbors want more information.
Make enough fliers for everyone in the building. Ask someone in the group if they are able to duplicate the flier at their job. If this isn’t possible, look for a local printer who could reproduce the flier for free. (You can reward the business by putting its name on the flier: “Printing services donated by Joe’s copy joint”) Or look for a community center or neighborhood agency that could print the fliers.

Step Four-C: The Planning Meeting
How Will The Fliers Be Distributed?

Depending on the number of people on the steering committee, you can:
Ask members to post fliers in the hallways on their floor and leave one under the door of each apartment.
If all the floors are not represented on the steering committee ask members to do extra floors.
Once again, you have the right to distribute and post fliers in your building. However, in some buildings the management rips down the fliers or tells the tenants that such postings are not allowed. If the building staff is tearing down your fliers you just have to keep putting them up. The best way to do this is to carry a few extra fliers with you and some tape, so that when you see that a flier has been removed, it will be easy for you to replace it with a new fresh one.
If the building management is giving you a real problem with this let your Tenants & Neighbors organizer know.
In addition to distributing and posting the flier, the best way to get people to attend your meeting is to speak to them personally. You can organize a door-knocking excursion to remind tenants of the meeting and urge them to attend. Don’t forget to remind your neighbors of the meeting when you run into them, inside or outside the building.

Step Five: The Full Tenant Association Meeting
The full building meeting is the real start of a tenant association.
At your first full meeting, a planning committee with a slate of officers (president, vice president, secretary & treasurer) should be elected to lead the association for six months to a year.

Tenant associations normally hold elections annually, and some impose term limits for officers. (Tenants & Neighbors can provide by-laws and help in planning your elections.) Once officers are elected, those attending the meeting should outline possible activates and projects for the association, including later meetings. The number of tenant association meetings should be determined by the by-laws. Some tenant associations’ meet monthly, though it is better to meet about four times a year unless there is an emergency.

In addition to officers, you might want to recruit volunteers for other tenant association activities i.e. floor captains to spread the word about future meetings, door knockers to recruit more members or an artist to design posters and leaflets. Try to get as many people involved as possible.

I would also add that collecting email addresses for updates, news, meeting reminders, and fund raising can be very helpful.

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Upper West Side Slumlord Pollution

With all the controversy and debate at the June 1, 2010 Manhattan Community Board 7 meeting about the bicycle lane on Columbus Avenue from 96th Street to 77th Street, there was little time to address a few other important issues. One Brockholst tenant emailed me one of several documents objecting to the proposed community facility in the cellar of the Brockholst building at 101 West 85th Street that was submitted to Community Board 7. Here is the first page:

Gulf Oil Spill on the Upper West Side for CB 7 June 1, 2010
Financing a Slumlord with Taxpayer Money Who Does Not Provide Essential Services and Pollutes the Environment

The owners of the Brockholst are planning to construct a Community Facility in the cellar. With landmark status, the building at 101 West 85th Street was originally built before 1900. It is a combustible brick and wood frame building using #6 Fuel Oil. There are two restaurants on the Columbus Avenue side with two kitchens as well as the boiler in the cellar of the building where, currently, there is not even a sprinkler system in place.

Burning #6 Fuel Oil creates “a rain of toxic soot that aggravates asthma, increases the risk of cancer, exacerbates respiratory illnesses and can cause premature death” according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s December 2009 study, titled: The Bottom of the Barrel: How the Dirtiest Heating Oil Pollutes Our Air and Harms Our Health. The EDF study describes #6 Fuel Oil as “unrefined sludge laced with pollutants” and concludes that “Each gallon of No. 6 burned creates 18.8 times more soot (PM) pollution than No. 2 heating oil according to the EPA emission standards”.

Even the  NYC Community Air Survey Winter 2008-2009 issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg office states that residential, commercial and institutional heating systems release 50% more fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and 17 times more SO2 than cars and trucks on New York City’s roads. The sludge-burning buildings in the city contribute 87 percent of the city’s heating oil soot pollution. There is proposed legislation to phase out the use of #6 and #4 Fuel Oils. Eventually, this dirty oil will be banned. The city is already converting some of its own heavy-oil-burning boilers to natural gas, after identifying 100 city school buildings burning No. 6 oil in neighborhoods with high asthma rates.

On the upper west side, the owners’ non-profit family trusts hold a total of 19 buildings under various DBA names with a total market value of approx. $2 billion. All boilers burn #6 Fuel Oil. With 1247 apartments and more than 300 HPD complaints, these buildings are burning approximately 776,511 gallons of #6 Fuel Oil, resulting in a huge failure to protect the community against toxic chemicals. In addition, the building owners and management only perform repairs relative to serious complaints of mold, heat and hot water, vermin including mice, rats, and bedbugs, serious leaks through the ceilings and walls described as “cascading waterfalls” when such complaints are reported and listed as violations or when tenants withhold rent to present their case in housing court under retaliatory threat of eviction. When repairs area performed, they are often self-certified and rarely re-inspected. The lack of concern for their tenants’ and other upper west side residents’ health and welfare is astonishing.

According to the DOB web site, several of the boilers in these buildings have not been inspected for years and do not have Certificates to Operate. The Brockholst certificate, for example, expired on October 28, 2009. Most previous inspections were certified by their own boiler installer, Irving Bauer, who inspects boilers in most if not all of their buildings.

Permission to construct the community facility in the cellar at 101 West 85th Street would further enable and subsidize slumlord management and the production of pollution via the resulting tax break which would be financed by taxpayers. The proposal should be scrutinized with an awareness of the entire building portfolio’s complaints, violations, mismanagement along with the pollution production.

The complete 25 page document may be accessed here.

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