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Tenants file lawsuit after deadly New York City building fire

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Tenants in a Harlem, New York, building where a deadly fire last November killed three people filed a lawsuit against their landlord and property manager for failing to start repairs on the building.

The tenants, which also announced a rent strike, are being organized by Tenants & Neighbors and are represented by Manhattan Legal Services' Tenant Rights Coalition, according to a news release.

Three people died and several families were displaced throughout the 49-unit building in the Nov. 19, 2021, fire in Harlem. In addition, tenants in 10 units continue to be displaced at their own expense, while also paying rent, and others in the building live amid dangerous fire damage, Legal Services NYC alleged.

According to the lawsuit, the fire caused extensive structural damage to the building, which is managed by Manhattanville Holdings LLC. The city's Department of Buildings and Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued repair and vacate orders for the building, deeming some of the apartments in the building "unsafe and uninhabitable."

In the lawsuit, tenants claimed some fire alarms, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in common areas and individual apartments were not working and failed to alert residents of smoke in the building.

The landlord, David Israel and Manhattanville Holdings, the lawsuit alleges, have "repeatedly" failed to correct hazardous violations of city regulations within the required timeframe. Some violations were open or repeatedly issued for several years, many since as early as 2015, the lawsuit alleged.

Manhattanville Holdings and Israel could not be reached for comment.

Other bad conditions in the building include a broken elevator, water and fire damage, a leaking roof, broken windows and light fixtures, soot from the fire in the walls and ceilings, mold and rodent infestations, Legal Services NYC alleged.

"The tenants are tired of waiting for their landlord to do the right thing and make repairs, so today they are announcing a rent strike and filing a lawsuit against their landlord seeking a court order for repairs, relocation and storage costs for displaced tenants, as well as harassment damages, among other claims," Rakhil Tilyayeva, an attorney at Manhattan Legal Services' Tenants' Rights Coalition, said in a statement.

Tilyayeva said tenants are legally entitled to withhold and set aside rent payments until repairs and essential services are provided.

"There are over a hundred HPD violations in the building, some of which have not been corrected since they were issued immediately following the fire and others that have been open for years. Many of these violations relate to fire safety requirements, which we believe contributed to the deadly fire that occurred in November 2021," Tilyayeva said.

Tenants allege their landlord's long history of not complying with fire safety and housing maintenance regulations contributed to the spread and the severity of the November fire, according to the complaint.

Tenants claim there were defective fire doors, inoperable or missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in units and the hallway, defective or obstructed fire escapes, defective fire windows, combustible material stored by the gas meter and lack of fire-retardant material throughout the entire building, according to the lawsuit.

Despite the landlord promising tenants they are committed to applying for city permits, making repairs and establishing better communication with them at the end of February, management has not yet begun construction, Legal Services NYC said.

The tenants said some have been displaced for nearly seven months and were forced to find housing on their own. Some of the tenants claimed they stayed in shelters temporarily, according to NYC legal services.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but tenants said the conditions in the building contributed to its spread and have come together to get their landlord to repair the damage in the building, according to NYC legal services.

One tenant said they told the building manager they had nowhere to go, after just moving across the country, but the building manager said they should talk to the American Red Cross.

"I stayed one night in a hotel afforded to me by the Red Cross and then two weeks in a shelter with other displaced people until I found a more permanent place to live. No one from management ever reached out to me again, except on the first of each month when I find a rent demand letter stuck in the door frame of my unit that remains uninhabitable," Oaklin Davis, a displaced tenant and Board Secretary of the tenant association, said in a statement.

"The last note I received from management was a contract to renew my lease with a 1.5% increase in the monthly rate," Davis said.

The NYC Law Department and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

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