April 13, 2021 By Christina Santucci
Queens elected officials – including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – joined dozens of residents displaced by last week’s massive blaze in Jackson Heights at a news conference in front of their fire-ravaged buildings Monday afternoon.
The event was held to show support for the hundreds of tenants left in disarray. More than 150 families were forced to abandon their apartments as a result of the eight-alarm blaze.
“In less than one hour, [we] lost our homes and left with only the clothes on our back,” said Andrew Sokolof-Diaz, president of the 89th Street Tenants Unidos Association. The group represents residents of 89-07 and 89-11 34 Ave., both of which were damaged during the fire.
Ocasio-Cortez, state Sen. Jessica Ramos, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and a representative for Councilmember Daniel Dromm addressed the crowd and pledged to help the residents.
“What our families are asking for here is the most basic thing … to return to the lives they had a week or two ago,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We need to fight so that children can stay in their schools, so that people can keep all members of their families [together]– including their little pets and loved ones – and we can return to normal. I want you all to know that each and every one of us is here for you, and we are working hard.”
The displaced residents are calling on officials to let them stay in hotels as close as possible to 89th Street – until they are able to return to their apartments in Jackson Heights.
Some tenants said they are now staying in hotels in East Elmhurst, while others have been placed in rooms near JFK Airport.
González-Rojas said she has helped to transport some tenants to their hotels near JFK Airport, and her office has been collecting donations for displaced tenants. “But, we know you need money, and you need a safe and dignified home that’s in the community, and we are fighting.”
“We want people to stay in their neighborhood. That means any hotels in this neighborhood need to be filled,” Richards said.
The hotel placements had also been set to run out Tuesday, but during the news conference, elected officials announced that rooms were extended until April 20. González-Rojas, Ramos, Dromm and Richards had asked the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development for an extension in a joint letter.
The Red Cross has provided the temporary lodging for 102 families up until today, and the city is about to take over in offering the accommodation. Other displaced residents were staying with family and friends.
Sokolof-Diaz said that while he was grateful families would not be forced to leave the hotels the next day, the additional time would not be enough for many of the displaced residents.
“Many of our neighbors – we are going to need to be housed for a long time,” he said.
Resident Nube Bermejo had been living in a third-floor apartment with her husband, their three young children and two other families. But since the April 6 fire, she has been staying nearby with a family member. Two of her children – ages five and three – go to school close to their apartment in Jackson Heights.
“Every day I am reminded of the fire. Every day, when I come here, it breaks my heart to see my home burnt down,” Bermejo said. “I still remember my son yelling that he didn’t want to die.”
Bermejo said her family’s financial situation had already been difficult because her husband lost his job last year, and they did not qualify for any pandemic-related federal assistance. They depend on donations to survive, she said.
Bermejo asked elected officials to help those affected by the fire to obtain housing nearby and to raise money for displaced families. “Please hear the pleas of a mother,” she said.
A GoFundMe – with the goal of $450,000 – has so far collected more than $333,000 in donations.
Several displaced residents said they feared having to take refuge in the city’s shelter system. They worried that larger families would be separated into smaller groups and that they would be forced to commute long distances for work and school if they were placed in family shelters.
Elvira Suarez, 73, has lived in one of the burned buildings with her 78-year-old husband since 1976. “We don’t want to leave here because this is home,” she said.
Suarez was able to quickly grab her dog after a firefighter knocked on her door to alert her about the fire last week. But two of her seven cats did not survive the blaze. Some of the surviving felines are now in an animal shelter in Manhattan, and Suarez and her husband are staying in a hotel in Jamaica.
“How do you expect us to commute on public transportation? How do you expect us to go to our doctor’s appointments or check in with our community? We need to be close,” she said.
Ramos called the fire “completely devastating” for residents.
“I became homeless overnight,” said Iris Flores, who lived with her dog on the sixth floor. Her apartment no longer has a roof because of the fire. “Our belongings, our memories, our treasured moments from the past – all burnt down to ashes. Those things can never be replaced.”
Many of the residents of the building are essential workers, and Flores and Sokolof-Diaz asked that members of community and elected officials show their support – just as they did early on in the pandemic during the citywide 7 p.m. clapping.
“I know many of you – present here today – clapped everyday during COVID,” Flores said. “Today I am asking for all of us to go beyond clapping and step up, take action, and help us.”