Tenants win suit but fear they still might not go home

The building at 289 Grand St. has sat vacant for two years following a major fire.

BY ALINE REYNOLDS | A court ruling last week would allow tenants of a fire-ravaged Chinatown-area building to move back into their homes. Exactly when tenants would get the green light, however, and whether they’ll be able to maintain their low monthly rents once they reclaim their apartments, remains to be seen.

In April 2010, a fire ravaged most of the apartments at 289 Grand St., leading to the building’s evacuation.

On Friday, March 2, Judge Timmie Elsner determined that the building’s owner, Wong’s Grand Realty Corp., must restore the rent-stabilized and rent-controlled units to habitable conditions by March 1, 2013. The decision caps a two-year court battle, in which the owner argued that it was “economically infeasible,” and therefore a violation of his constitutional rights, to restore the building’s interior to its original condition at a cost higher than the anticipated profits the fixed-up building would generate. The tenants took Wong’s Grand to court in 2010 after the owner balked at repairing the building as ordered by the city.

According to Elsner, however, Wong’s Grand failed to prove its case, mainly since the judge found the corporation’s assessment of the scope of work involved in the renovations to be “excessive, unreasonable and not credible.”

The judge determined that the cost to restore the building is roughly $2.3 million, not $7.36 million, and that the owner didn’t provide the court with a cost estimate of the property’s value post-restoration.

“It would be manifestly unjust to deprive petitioners of their homes in an instance where [the owner] would profit from a catastrophic event,” Elsner wrote in court papers.

Community advocates and elected officials that helped the tenants with temporary lodging and other accommodations applauded the judge’s decision at a press conference last week.

“For a strong-willing judge to say, the landlord has to go back in and fix it, is tremendous,” said Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality. “This ruling is a victory for all rent-regulated tenants across the city.”

“From the moment this tragic fire struck almost two years ago, we have been fighting tirelessly for the right of the tenants who were displaced from 289 Grand St. to return to their homes,” said NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “They have suffered enormously and they have waited long enough.”

But while the judge is requiring the owner to renovate the building by next March, the displaced tenants worry it might take even longer and are angry that it will have been three years or longer by the time they finally return.

“They’re fearful the owner will try to drag it out,” explained John Gorman, an attorney representing the tenants.

“It’s been hell,” said Stephen Vendola, 83, who slept on a couch in family members’ Jersey City home for the first several months after the fire.

Vendola, who lived on the second floor of 289 Grand St. for more than 40 years, said he hasn’t been able to recover most of his belongings since he’s been granted limited access to his apartment.

“I’ve just been robbed of everything,” he said. “I can’t get in there to get my clothes.”

With the assistance of A.A.F.E., Chinatown native Karen Lee, who found herself homeless after the fire, was relocated to a studio apartment on East Houston Street and Avenue C. Lee, like Vendola, had barely any chance to retrieve her belongings, including cherished photographs of her family — and when she did, she found them soaked with water.

“It’s taking way too long. It’s frustrating,” she said of not being able to return to her home.

Raising the possibility of further delays, the landlord, who wasn’t available for comment by press time, is reportedly planning to appeal the lawsuit. What’s more, if Wong’s Grand is victorious on appeal, the tenants might be completely out of luck.

Eric Bederman, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said, “If the landlord wins the case and demolishes the building, the units would not be rent-stabilized and the tenants would not be guaranteed the right to return.”

According to tenants’ attorney Gorman, the owner reportedly hopes to convert at least some — if not all — of the apartments into market-rate units. Gorman said Wong’s Grand could attempt to deregulate the units pending approval by the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal even while adhering to the court’s ruling.

But it wouldn’t be easy to do, Gorman said, and it would require the owner to find alternative lodgings for the tenants or provide a monthly stipend for them.

“It’s a difficult, drawn-out process and not cheap in terms of prosecuting and finally prevailing,” he said.