Tenants take landlord to court in aftermath of fire

Tenants take landlord to court in aftermath of fire
Tenants of 851 E. 163rd Street protest against their landlord/building owner Hiram Colon Jr. over their residence’s unsafe living conditions at a rally held outside Bronx Housing and Civil Court on Thursday, December 7.
Photo by Silvio Pacifico

Tenants of a five-story building at 851 E. 163rd Street took their landlord to court on Thursday, December 7, in the aftermath of a fire in July that left 12 residents injured.

A trial being held at Bronx Housing and Civil Court, 1118 Grand Concourse, involves tenants testifying about their experiences living under poor conditions, including their accounts of a fire in the building that resulted in one tenant jumping from a blazing fire escape.

Half of the building’s tenants are involved in the case, testifying about needed repairs, dangers in the building, as well as harassment from the landlord, according to an official familiar with the case.

According to a fire incident report, dated Sunday, July 3, 2017, from the Bureau of Fire Investigation, Fire Marshall Thomas Driscoll determined that the fire was caused by an electrical outlet.

The fire started in apartment 23 on the second floor, in the southeast bedroom on the west wall in a combustible material, plastic-wire insulation, according to the report.

It spread to a mattress and couch, then the ceiling, floor, all four walls and contents, the hallway ceiling and walls, kitchen ceiling, walls and contents, public hallway ceiling and walls, and exterior of south wall and fire escape, the report said

More than a month after the fire, Colon still had 225 open violations at the building, records show.

Residents say electrical problems in the building still persist and they fear for their safety.

One such resident, Natasha Tosca, said that workers making repairs to electrical outlets in her apartment did a shoddy job.

Electricians installed more outlets in Tosca’s apartment and rewired half of the apartment: the hallway, bedroom and bathroom.

The kitchen, living room and bedroom are all on one circuit, she said.

So while installing new outlets, they left the old outlets in the walls, which could become overloaded if a TV or a hair dryer is turned on, the tenant explained.

Tosca said, “They broke open the walls and connected the old outlets to the new outlets.”

Afterward, no one from the NYC Department of Buildings came in to inspect the work done by Colon’s electricians, according to Tosca.

At the trial Thursday the DOB inspector testified that violations he noted in September 2017, two months after the fire, could cause a fire in the future.

“With the violations in the building, if there was a short due to the way the circuits were not grounded in the building, in the worst case scenario it could cause the wires to burn inside the walls and cause a fire,” the inspector testified.

Also, smoke alarms in the building did not work or were not hooked up, causing a delay in tenants being alerted to escape.

The tenant who jumped from a fire escape did so because flames were shooting out of a window below the fire escape, according to an official familiar with the incident.

The tenants are being represented by the Community Development Project at Urban Justice Center, which provides legal support to dismantle racial, economic and social oppression.

Funding for the tenant litigation is provided through the Office of Civil Justice, NYC Human Resources Administration.

Several calls by the Bronx Times Reporter to landlord/building owner Hiram Colon Jr.’s attorney were not returned.

Reach Reporter Bob Guiliano at (718) 260-4599. E-mail him at bguiliano@cnglocal.com.

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