Two months after the Fatal Twin Parks Fire, a fresh start for one tenant

A residential complex in Melrose has emerged as a new home for dozens of tenants displaced by January’s deadly Bronx fire. At least 29 households have so far signed leases on the building, and a further 44 are expected soon. Among the new residents: Mark Smith, who says he lost all his belongings in the Twin Parks flame.

Adi Talwar

Mark Smith unlocks his apartment for the first time after signing a lease on March 14, 2022.

Two months after losing everything in a fire that killed 17 of his neighbors, Mark Smith finally had reason to smile on a sunny Monday morning earlier in the month.

Smith, with the keys in hand, had just signed a one-year lease on an apartment on the seventh floor of La Central, a new residential complex near the busy Hub commercial sector in Melrose. His unit has a dishwasher and views of trains 2 and 5 as they emerge above the ground and turn onto elevated lanes along Westchester Avenue.

There is also a working radiator and a built-in sprinkler system. The front door closes automatically. “I’m fine now,” Smith said as he walked through the hallways of the building. “I’m getting a seat.”

The signing of the lease marked a significant change of fortune for Smith, who had lived in what he called “slum” conditions in the Twin Parks North West high-rise – floods, mold, pests – before the January 9 fire forced him into a Webster Avenue hotel.

Smith had spent the last five years on the third floor of Twin Parks, a few doors down from where a space heater ignited, pumping smoke through a faulty door and into the rest of the 19-story tower. He said he would probably have succumbed to smoke inhalation inside his apartment if he were at home. “I would probably be dead,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have had to blow up my windows and jump out.”

Instead, he ended up homeless without a single photograph, vital document or extra piece of clothing left. He said he had not yet received a $ 4 million city fund set up in the wake of the tragic fire and that he was not seeking a portion of the $ 1 million raised by the Gambian Youth Organization. a local non-profit organization, although he received some financial assistance from the Muslim Community Network and the Twin Parks ownership group. He also had the support of Legal Aid’s Bronx Office. His lawyer Maureen Stutzman, who helped him in a previous housing lawsuit, accompanied him to the lease, which was signed on March 14th.

In the weeks following the fire, La Central has emerged as a hub for those displaced by the fire. At least 29 households have so far signed leases on the complex with 496 units, according to the mayor’s office and a spokesman for Camber Group, one of three investment companies that own Twins Parks with LIHC Investment Group and Belveron Partners. A further 44 families and individuals are set to move in after negotiations between Twin Parks landlords, city officials and the consortium of developers who own La Central, a group that includes The Hudson Companies, BRP Companies and the firm ELH-TKC. The five-building complex also includes a supportive residential home run by the organization Breaking Ground, which opened in 2019.

The city and La Central landlords postponed a lottery to affordable housing for the complex to allow Twin Park tenants to move into the open units, building management said. The apartments, built with 421a tax breaks, have been vacant since completion in June 2021, reflecting the lengthy leasing-up process for affordable units in the city’s Housing Connect lottery.

That was fine by Smith. On top of the rooftop deck on the 11th floor, he pointed to the health center where his girlfriend works, looking out at the Manhattan skyline, partially obscured by a Yankees flag fluttering on a building across the street.

“I want to sit in a nice chair and watch the trains run by,” he said.

Smith uses a Section 8 voucher to cover the bulk of his rent of $ 1,900 a month and handed a money order to the building’s assistant property manager, Millie Lieb, to cover his share – 30 percent of his Supplementary Security Income Check.

The signing of the lease also had a special resonance for Lieb, who was twice displaced by fire while growing up around Soundview in the 1970s – like 56 children whose lives were disrupted by the Twin Parks flame. “You’re growing up fast,” she said of a childhood scarred by flames.

She said she takes some time for herself after filling out the paperwork with each Twin Parks family and giving them space to mourn, or expel, or celebrate as they prefer.

“I understand what it’s like,” Lieb added. “So I listen when they come in. I let them talk as much as they want.”

As Smith was finishing her paper package, a woman who had already moved in came into the office to talk to Lieb’s colleague. Later in the day, Lieb was scheduled to meet with another Twin Parks family to sign a lease.

Meanwhile, at least 40 families have returned to the Twin Parks building 30 blocks northeast of East 181st Street, city officials said. All but the 14 units on the third floor are again open to renters, according to the owner group. A spokesman for the owners said they will credit the tenants’ rent in January, February and March.

About 76 households remain in six hotels rented by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the Red Cross and Camber, a City Hall official said. They have until April 7 before they also have to move out. By then, it would have been almost three months since the fire.

Gambian Youth Organization founder Mamadou Sawaney, who distributed $ 5,000 to many Twin Parks households and $ 10,000 to the families of deceased victims, said it would be too long to wait.

“By the end of the three months, they are supposed to be located somewhere, and if that does not happen, we will say [city officials and the landlords] have not stepped up to the plate, ”Sawaney said.

Reporting from the news site Documented has revealed how the city and the landlords failed to go to the trouble of some of the tenants, putting them in hotels infested with bed bugs while standing at nearly $ 3 million in donated funds. The city had spent about $ 1 million distributing modest cash benefits to households while covering funeral services and daily meals – though food quality declined as a new provider took over, the city reported.

The news coverage seemed to spur the city to further action. On March 16, Mayor Eric Adams promised to distribute the full funding to the approximately 150 displaced families through the organization BronxWorks, which has provided casework services.

“These families will soon see another $ 3 million start rolling into their pockets to help them with food, housing, household items or anything else they have lost,” Adams said.

It’s still unclear how it will work for renters like Smith, whose housing coupon is based on his income, and for whom a one-time cash infusion could jeopardize a crucial rent subsidy. City Hall asked BronxWorks questions, but BronxWorks said they needed specific permission from the city to answer questions based on the terms of their contract.

However, the money cannot come fast enough for Smith.

During a tour of one of his new building’s two laundry rooms, Smith noted that he would not use the washing machines for a while. He has not yet rebuilt the wardrobe he lost in the fire.

“I have no clothes,” he said.

The post Two Months After Fatal Twin Parks Fire, a Fresh Start for One Tenant first appeared on City Limits.

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