Four months after a four-alarm fire ravaged a Bronx apartment building, prompting city politicians and philanthropists to raise money to help those impacted by the blaze, former residents say they’ve received only a fraction of the millions donated on their behalf. People are wondering what the mayor is going to do to help displaced families return to a sense of normalcy, claiming red tape and politics are impeding their support.
The New York Times released a report this week describing how only 14 of the 118 Twin Parks units burnt up in the fire are inhabitable, and so families are trying to secure affordable housing.
Ninety applications have been received by La Central, a housing development in the South Bronx. Two-thirds of those applicants have signed leases for their new homes, but many of the displaced fire victims are still living in hotels as they decide what options work best for them — considering the commute time to their jobs and what schools are available for their children in proximity to the complex.
Another factor is money.
The state contracted a company called CVR Associates a week after the fire to create and distribute housing vouchers for those displaced residents to help them find new homes. The state also started working with BronxWorks to provide caseworkers and assistance to those in need. Still, survivors are saying that is not enough.
Survivors are saying the aid promised to them is being distributed at an extremely slow pace, if at all. Some point to the newly elected mayor, Eric Adams’ Fund to Advance New York City, and the early outpouring of donations it received from everyday people and celebrities like Fat Joe and Cardi B. However, from that pot, the displaced New Yorkers only received $2,250 per person and nothing else.
Community organizations like The Gambian Youth Organization have given $5,000 to each household impacted by the blaze, and the Muslim Community Network used a metric of family size to determine their gifts which measured between $800 and $4,000.
But even with those donations, the former tenants have struggled to survive. With reports saying the mayor’s fundraised a total of $4.4 million after the fire, including money and in-kind donations, the people are questioning all of the hoops they have to jump through to access some of those funds to restore their quality of life.
Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents part of the Bronx in Congress, said, “Waiting for the money has been like waiting for Godot.”
To make matters worse, one survivor said, “nobody’s telling you anything.”
A 45-year-old mother of six teenagers, Nikki Campbell, told the Times her “biggest” concern is to find housing for her family to live in, but even on this she is not receiving any word from those assigned over their plight, “I’m trying to get things happening but it’s insane. It’s crazy. The worst part is the lack of communication. You don’t know what’s happening. Nobody’s telling you anything.”
She even has text messages with elected officials who have not contacted her back and emails with her caseworker — who has only responded back to her twice. Now Campbell is waiting to see if she is approved for Section 8 assistance.
What has been shared with the public is that almost a million dollars, $940,000, was used for cash assistance, food, burial services, and other expenses. Reports say BronxWorks will be responsible for divvying up the other $3 million in cash to the more than 150 families.
Eileen Torres, the executive director of BronxWorks, says the scale of the disaster has to be considered when you think about the red tape and people are forgetting what has been done already.
“All of these organizations need to be applauded for the fact that at a moment’s notice, every single group that I know of tried to figure out what can we do to support these families,” she remarked to the newspaper. “This is a response that I’ve never seen from a group of individuals since perhaps 9/11.”
Torres says she understands where the frustration is coming from and shared that each of the 150 households have received $10,000 worth of gift cards within 30 days of the fire.
The administrator explains there are six caseworkers responsible for 25 families each and has helped these survivors receive access to furniture vouchers, replaced household items, directed them to mental health and legal services, set up transportation to hospitals, and even assisted in signing students up for new schools.
But officials believe the help they are providing speaks to more than just money, but is also changing the laws on safety regulations.
CBS 2 says on Wednesday, April 20, Congress held a public hearing on how to prevent these types of fires from occurring. This comes weeks after City Council member Oswald Feliz called for a package of new fire safety bills to be passed to penalize negligent landlords with heavy fines for failing to take care of the needs of their tenants.
Feliz said at his press conference, “The Twin Parks fire was avoidable. Had all self-closing doors actually closed [and] functioned, that fire would not have turned into the tragedy that we saw.”
The fire, which claimed the lives of 17 people, including eight children, on Sunday, Jan. 9, was started after a defective space heater burst into flames on the third floor. Still, politicians saw there were other things that also contributed to the residents’ peril.
Rep. Torres believes “If Twins Park Northwest had properly functioning self-closing door, the smoke would have been contained and countless lives would’ve been saved.”
For survivors who felt as though they were ignored or not receiving information, this meeting provided a space for their voices to be heard.
Sandra Clayton, a resident at Twin Parks Northwest, gave her testimony, which said the conditions that caused the fire are not new.
“Tenants had been living in dangerous conditions for years,” Clayton informed the congressional members assembled at the Bronx Community College. “The building’s alarm system was malfunctioning, as it would go off at night. When the fire alarm went off in January, I assumed it was nothing because I was so used to the alarm going off.”
Unlike others, she has a new place to live and is grateful for the help she has received, despite still having remnants of trauma in her life.
She said, “I feel safer now, my apartment has a sprinkler system. But I am worried.”
“I sleep with my doors unlocked, just in case I need to run out of the apartment.”