Volume 75, Number 46 | April 5 - 11 2006

Villager photo by Sarah Ferguson

Michael Addonisio eating a sandwich provided by the Red Cross after he and other tenants fled a fire in their former squatter building last Thursday.

Fire leaves E. Sixth St. homesteaders homeless

By Sarah Ferguson

Residents of a former squat building in the East Village near Avenue C were forced out of their homes last Thursday after a three-alarm fire ripped though their five-story tenement, which they were renovating to become a low-income co-op.

The fire erupted in a ground-floor apartment at 719 E. Sixth St. and quickly blazed through the second and third floors. Thick plumes of black smoke were visible from as far away as the Williamsburg Bridge, witnesses said.

Firefighters rescued several adults and children after the ladder to the front fire escape fell off, leaving them stranded on the second floor. Others managed to escape down the back fire escape or by crossing over to the roof of a neighboring building.

Jim Allen, who lived in the apartment where the fire started, was hospitalized for a broken nose and a severe concussion that he suffered after he bashed through the back window to save his cat and hit his head inside the smoke-filled rooms. A firefighter was also treated for minor injuries at Bellvue hospital and released. But several cats were carried out dead and a dog was singed.

Four homeless families living in an adjacent low-income co-op building that leases space to a homeless shelter were also evacuated after smoke and fire spread there. A spokesperson for the shelter, Nazareth Houses, said the families were relocated to other transitional housing sites.

The stunned residents of 719 E. Sixth St. huddled on the sidewalk as a building inspector slapped a vacate order on the front facade, declaring their home uninhabitable until the extensive fire, smoke and water damage and numerous other violations are repaired.

It was a tough blow for the former squatters, who had been renovating the building in partnership with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a nonprofit housing group.

In August 2002, the city awarded 719 E. Sixth St. and 10 other buildings to UHAB as part of a plan to legalize the remaining squats in the East Village.

The deal allows the homesteaders to own their spaces as limited-equity co-ops once the renovations are complete. But the rehab costs get factored into their monthly dues, and many residents fear the debt from the construction loans will spiral beyond their means.

At 719 E. Sixth St., the fire has only heightened those concerns.

Firefighters punched holes in the brand-new roof and skylights and bashed out many of the new windows that had been installed through a grant from New York State’s Weatherization Assistance Program.

About $350,000 of a $500,000 loan has been invested in the building since UHAB took it over.

Though the building was insured, it could take weeks or months before the claim is settled, and longer still before work commences to fix the charred floors and water-logged apartments, leaving the homesteaders to fend for themselves.

“It’s terrible. We were on the road,” said Godfrey Crespo, a Puerto Rican senior citizen who lives on the third floor. In the past year, workers have installed a new boiler, plumbing, electrical wiring and “fancy Swedish radiators,” Crespo said. “We were supposed to get heat for the first time this winter. Now we’re out, and we don’t know when we’re going to come home.

“I can’t even get inside to fetch my teeth,” added Crespo, who was missing his dentures.

Although Red Cross workers arrived at the scene to offer relocation services, the homesteaders say they were later told they were ineligible, in part because the city never fully recognized them as legal occupants. A spokesperson said the Red Cross generally provides emergency housing for only two days and then refers people to city agencies for long term placements.

The Fire Department ruled the fire accidental due to “careless cooking.” Jim Allen could not be reached for comment. Susan Howard, a local resident who has been acting as Allen’s legal advocate in court, says this fire may have been caused by Allen’s hot plate, though she says Allen insists he turned it off before taking a nap after breakfast.

“He said it started in the kitchen,” Howard said. “He woke up and saw fire and ran to get a fire extinguisher and tried to put it out, but it didn’t work. He ran upstairs to get another tenant, Gavin, who got his fire extinguisher, but it was too late, the fire was too fast.”

But the homesteaders were quick to blame Allen, who is mentally disabled, and his longtime friend Dawn Rosato, who they say were heard arguing late into the night and on the morning the fire broke out. They claim Allen and Rosato have been associated with fires in other squats where they lived.

“Every building he’s ever been in burned,” said Gavin Vanvlack, a 38-year-old professional trainer who lives in a duplex apartment above Allen’s. “That’s why we tried to get him out of the building.”

Vanvlack says the 719 homesteader’s association and UHAB spent three years in court and nearly $20,000 in legal fees trying to evict Allen. They say they submitted affidavits describing previous fires that had broken out in Allen’s unrenovated apartment, which they described as filled with papers and “pack-ratted out.”

“I vouched that I had put fires out in his apartment two times,” said Michael Addonisio, a heavily tattooed piercing and body-modification artist who lives on the third floor.

“We told the courts that women and children live in this building in fear because of him, because of his actions,” Addonisio said.

Addonisio’s comments were backed by Josh Young, the father of two young children in the building.

“He had a bunch of mini-fires,” Young said.” It kept involving the hot plate. We had smoke alarms all over the place, including one right outside his door. I don’t know why they didn’t go off.”

The fire concerns were also given credence by UHAB.

“The homesteaders have told us repeatedly about threats made by Allen and the woman he cohabitates with occasionally, as well as their fears that they were a danger to the building,” said Richard Heitler, chief operating officer at UHAB.

“But legally we found ourselves in the ambiguous position of how do you evict a squatter from a squat?” Heitler explained.

On the street, Rosato called the allegations against her and Allen “simply not true: There’s more hatemongering in the housing movement than Carter has pills,” she said, quoting an old adage. Rosato maintained she left 719 E. Sixth St. in the morning well before the fire broke out and said she did not live or sleep there.

Howard also insisted that Allen had had no previous fires at 719 and said he’d recently cleared out the bulk of his old books and papers. She blamed the legal battle on “opportunists” seeking to take over his apartment, which he acquired in 2000 after an elderly man he’d been taking care of died.

“He lived there since 2000 and took care of Floyd, who he knew for 30 years,” Howard said. “He has never started a fire. To put this on him, when he is really close to getting a home, is really suspect.”

According to Howard, Allen had been on the verge of moving into a newly renovated studio apartment in another building, which UHAB offered him as part of a legal settlement.

UHAB officials, however, say they never agreed on the terms, blaming Howard for gumming up the process. They say they offered Allen a temporary studio apartment last December while Howard worked to find Allen managed care. But they say Howard balked at the deal because she wanted Allen to become a full owner at the new building.

UHAB officials say they then conceded to Howard’s demand in order to get Allen out of Sixth St. But since the fire, all deals are off.

“The time for acceptance was months ago,” said UHAB lawyer Erica McHale. “At this point, there’s no settling.”

McHale said UHAB’s concern now is finding accommodations for the 20-plus other residents displaced by the fire, including five children — while securing the means to fix the building. Heitler said the fire could set back renovations a year or more.

“We don’t know the financial cost” of the damages, Heitler said. “We do know that we lost a lot of time. But we will be built. The partnership between UHAB and the homesteaders is as firm as ever, and we are committed to rebuilding.”

But for the currently homeless homesteaders, that time out could prove tough to bear. Some people have doubled up temporarily with friends or moved into other former squat buildings. On Monday night 71-year-old Rosemary Walls was sitting in the rain with her two cats in a carrier and her dog Roxy, waiting for a friend to take her in.

“I’m lost, I really am,” Walls said. “Everybody’s been really nice, but I really don’t know where I’m going to go.”

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