After Fatal Fire, City Vows Crackdown on Illegal Apartments

NY Times - April 27, 2011

by KAREN ZRAICK

Fire officials determined on Tuesday that the Bronx row house where a 12-year-old boy and his parents died in a fast-moving fire a day earlier had been illegally subdivided, leading city officials to pledge a crackdown on a practice that can impede firefighters and imperil lives.

Fire Department officials investigated the remains of an illegally subdivided row house in the Bronx where three people died on Monday. The cause is under investigation.

The tragedy illuminated the problems that can arise when ownership of a property is in flux. Neighbors said the building, at 2321 Prospect Avenue in Belmont, had been neglected and drew squatters. Some residents said they had been paying rent, but it was unclear whom they were paying. A neighbor said at least one squatter had been charging others to live there.

The Buildings Department had fielded repeated complaints about unsafe conditions before the fire, only to have its inspectors unable to gain access to the building on 10 occasions, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Tuesday. The most recent complaint, filed on April 14, cited the building's illegal subdivisions.

"It is an enormous problem throughout the city," the mayor said at a previously scheduled event in the Bronx. "In the end, the real people culpable are landlords."

But the identity of the landlord of the burned building was subject to debate, with the owner listed on city records, Domingo Cedano, saying he had lost it to foreclosure. Records show that Mr. Cedano bought the building in 2005 for $480,000. But by 2008, he had fallen behind on the mortgage; the foreclosure proceeding began the next year. The building was ordered to be sold at public auction in the latest filing, but the sale had not yet been scheduled, court records show.

The building began to draw complaints shortly after Mr. Cedano fell behind on his mortgage payments, with the first one -- a caller said the boiler was not working -- in December 2008. The next October, the Fire Department succeeded in entering the building and vacated the second floor when it was found to be carved up into three units with no secondary exits. But inspectors were unable to enter the building on two follow-up visits; on the second, a man refused to let them in, according to records.

In November 2009, three complaints were filed on various issues, including faulty wiring, illegal subdivisions and a lack of exits. Again, no one answered the door, and the complaints were closed when inspectors could not gain access to the building.

Only one complaint was open at the time of the fire: another call that the building had been sliced up into illegal "single-room occupancy" units. It was filed on April 14, the same day Consolidated Edison shut off power because it had no record that anyone lived there. Neighbors said they had seen residents use a generator and hastily connected wires to power the building.

The mayor added that access to fire escapes on the third floor, where the three victims lived, had been cut off. They were identified late Monday as Christina Garcia, 43; Juan Manuel Lopez, 36; and Christian Garcia, 12. Neighbors described the couple as hardworking and dedicated to Christian and his younger brother and sister, who were rescued by other relatives. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Mr. Bloomberg said the city had already increased enforcement on illegal conversions, with the Buildings Department issuing 1,300 vacate orders in 2010 and getting almost twice as many warrants to enter buildings over the last two years as in the previous six.

Inspectors can cite evidence on the outside of a building to obtain a warrant, like multiple mailboxes or bells. But no such evidence was present outside the Prospect Avenue building, said Tony Sclafani, a spokesman for the Buildings Department.

Building inspectors respond to a location at least twice to investigate complaints, Mr. Sclafani said. If they are blocked or no one answers, they post a form on the door instructing the owner or tenant to call the inspectors back.

The department can also go to court and ask for a warrant, but it is difficult to obtain one without evidence beyond a caller's complaint. The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who spoke alongside Mr. Bloomberg, said two-thirds of such warrant requests were denied in court. The Council will hold a hearing on the issue in June.