Sunset Park residents show ‘community power at its finest’ after devastating fire

Sunset Park residents show ‘community power at its finest’ after devastating fire

A GoFundMe that generated over $134,000 in less than three months saw over 1,000 individual donations while local businesses held fundraisers to help the displaced tenants.

A fire in an apartment building at 702 44th St. in Sunset Park on April 3 displaced 52 households.
A fire in an apartment building at 702 44th St. in Sunset Park on April 3 displaced 52 households. Photo Credit: @bones.photography

This is Part Two of a series that will follow several tenants as they rebuild following a fire that destroyed their homes in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In future installments, we’ll check in on how they’re adjusting to their new homes, delve into the financial ramifications and more.

When a massive fire broke out at an apartment building in Sunset Park this spring, it was a matter of hours — not days, not weeks — before the cogs of the community began turning in support of the displaced victims.

First responders were still on the scene of 702 44th St. when David Estrada, director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District, huddled with other community officials in a nearby emergency response center to work out the details of an online fundraiser that would go on to generate over $134,600 in donations — nearly $2,600 for each household.

Volunteer Leslie Carrion sorts through donations for fire victim at the Church of the Redeemer in Sunset Park.
Volunteer Leslie Carrion sorts through donations for fire victim at the Church of the Redeemer in Sunset Park. Photo Credit: Church of the Redeemer

Days later, the recreation room of the Church of the Redeemer on Seventh Avenue was packed with mountains of clothing, diapers, food, toiletries and more for the 52 households left homeless by the devastating fire. Even more in-kind donations ended up at the neighborhood’s Salvation Army.

Estrada said he was “blown away” by the flood of support from the community, though the gravity of the situation still weighs on him. “As happy as I am to raise over $100,000 and as nice as it is to give $2,600 to each apartment, it’s only a tiny fraction of their loss in the end, which is bittersweet.”

‘Community power at its finest’

In addition to more than 1,000 individual donations to the GoFundMe, the proceeds from a handful of fundraisers held by local businesses — L’Wren Bar, Judy’s Café, Five Boroughs Brewing Co. and Industry City, among them — were also put into the pot. Friends of Eleanor Whitney, who owns a condo in the building, recently held a benefit concert at The Footlight bar in Ridgewood and donated the proceeds to the GoFundMe as well.

“To have that support continue to flow in two months after the fact really felt great to me,” she said. “It’s amazing that the support even reaches beyond Sunset Park.”

In order to maintain transparency, Estrada said a bank account was set up for the donations separate from the BID, a nonprofit entity that usually deals with smaller neighborhood improvements rather than massive online community fundraising. The BID also conformed to IRS guidelines on disaster relief and refused an administrative fee to ensure every penny left after GoFundMe’s fee was available for the tenants.

Handling the logistics of the fundraiser was a team effort, Estrada said, with folks from the offices of Rep. Nydia Velázquez and City Councilman Carlos Menchaca pitching in as well as Rovika Rajkishun, with the New York Immigration Coalition, and Community Board 7 chair Cesar Zuñiga, who also lived in the building.

“Sunset Park is a close-knit community and we take care of one another. I’m deeply proud of how the community has contributed,” Velázquez said.

In addition to the fundraiser, Velázquez’s office has been acting as a liaison between the tenants and city services as well as connecting them to the resources offered by local nonprofits.

“I am so grateful for organizations like the Tzu Chi Foundation, the Church of the Redeemer, the local Salvation Army, the Bay Ridge Christian Center, Christ United Methodist and Trinity Lutheran church, among others who stepped up to assist residents with meals and other help. Melissa del Valle Ortiz, of my staff, did tremendous work enlisting their help and coordinating efforts,” the lawmaker added.

Menchaca, who has also been assisting displaced residents with housing and other needs, said the outpouring of support shows just how tight-knit the community is. “The Latino, Asian, white and immigrant communities all came together and in their varying strengths of services to offer help to the residents. Community power at its finest.”

Tenants continue to rebuild

Three months after the fire, sparked on April 3 by a candle burning near curtains in a sixth-floor apartment, it’s still unclear how long it will take to reopen the building. The stabilization work mandated by the DOB was completed in May, attorney Theresa Racht, who represents the condominium board, said, but the restoration plan is still in its early stages.

The tenants also continue to rebuild. Of the 16 households that initially applied for long-term placement through the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, six have been relocated, one is pending and the rest either went with another opportunity or declined the units offered by the agency, a spokesman said.

The roof of 702 44th St. in Sunset Park is still destroyed, three months after the devastating fire.
The roof of 702 44th St. in Sunset Park is still destroyed, three months after the devastating fire. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Luisa Ostolaza has been staying with one of her daughters on Staten Island. The 82-year-old applied for a long-term housing placement through HPD and is waiting on final approval for a studio apartment in Sunset Park.

“Right now, we’re waiting for some paperwork to come in to see if they accept her for a program so she can pay 30 percent of her income toward rent. She’s on a fixed income as it is, and that would help her tremendously,” said Evie Douglas, one of Ostolaza’s daughters.

Douglas said her mother plans to use the GoFundMe donation from the BID to help furnish her new apartment. “That’s fantastic, what people are doing and how everyone is coming together,” she added.

Whitney said she also is accepting the GoFundMe donation, though she plans to give a portion of it to Neighbors Helping Neighbors, one of the local nonprofits assisting the building’s rent-stabilized tenants.

Whitney recently went back to the building for the last time to retrieve anything else worth saving. She said the condo board doesn’t intend to demolish the building, but she recently discovered she will have to pay for the cost of removing debris from her unit — a financial burden she wasn’t prepared to bear.

“I understand there’s a conversation between the building’s insurance and our individual insurance and then it sort of applies differently to the renters, and there’s folks who don’t have insurance. So there’s a lot of different situations in the building, which makes it more complicated,” she said. “I have no idea how much that’s going to cost: Is it $2,000 or is it $20,000?”

Eleanor Whitney and her new cat Biscuit hang at their new apartment in Sunset Park.
Eleanor Whitney and her new cat Biscuit hang at their new apartment in Sunset Park. Photo Credit: Lauren Martin

While navigating the hurdles of owning a condo destroyed by fire, Whitney has spent the last few weeks adjusting to her new rental apartment in Sunset Park. She’s also made room in her heart for a new furry friend after her cat Crackers died in the fire.

“She’s white like my old cat, but she’s very different, very different personalities,” Whitney said of Biscuit. “We’re getting used to each other … and I think both of us sort of just look at each other like, ‘what are we doing in this apartment?’”

The Sunset Park BID, meanwhile, has been busy delivering the first round of checks from the GoFundMe. BID president Delvis Valdes handed out over 40 checks to families on June 21. Estrada said they are in the process of getting checks to the rest of the households, even if it means finding people one-by-one.

“This is a tragedy, but there is inspiration, there is hope to be felt when you see how many people have given,” he added of the fundraiser. “It’s really quite beautiful.”

Lauren Cook