Moving Back Home After Devastating Fire

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Residents and community leaders come together to mark reopening of 289 Grand Street

Stephen Vendola left to take his dog for a walk and didn't go back inside his Chinatown apartment for three years.

A fire ripped through 289 Grand Street - and two adjacent apartment buildings - in April 2010, killing one tenant and displacing residents who had to mount a legal battle with the help of community groups against the property owner to repair the building.

Residents and community leaders, including NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Council Member Maragaret Chin, gathered at the offices of Asian Americans for Equality last Thursday to mark a reunion three years in the making in which residents were finally able to move back into their rent-controlled apartments.

"I've been living there 50 years," said Vendola. "It was heartbreaking." Vendola came back from his walk three years ago to see the building on fire and people streaming out of it.

The seven-alarm fire claimed the two adjacent buildings, which have since been turned into one commercial space, and left 289 Grand damaged but not destroyed. After learning that the landlord wanted to demolish the building, tenants formed an association and hired a lawyer in an effort to save it.

In March 2012 a judge ordered the landlord to rebuild and in May of this year tenants moved back in.

"Today is a great day for the tenants of 289 Grand Street and for the protection and preservation of affordable housing in our community," said Silver.

Silver called Asian Americans for Equality the driving force behind the effort to restore 289 Grand and said that fires in the neighborhood are an all too common occurrence.

"We've had, unfortunately, too many fires here in our community since this fire as a result of the fact that we have an aging housing stock," said Silver, who noted that a fire broke out that morning on nearby Elizabeth Street.

However, Silver said it was a day of victory for the residents and for those who fight for affordable housing in NYC.

"From the moment this tragic fire struck three years ago we have been fighting tirelessly for the rights of the tenants who were displaced by that fire to return to their homes," said Silver. "After a long and difficult road the tenants have won their right to finally return home."

Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Mathew Wambua gave credit to the residents of 289 Grand, AAFE, his colleagues and local leaders for the outcome.

"Thank you all for your tenacity, for your ferocity, and thank you for your unrelenting drive to defend tenant rights," said Wambua.

AAFE was on hand the night of the fire and represented displaced residents in the fight to rehabilitate the building.

"It takes a very long time for things like this to be worked out," said Peter Gee, an AAFE member who was part of the team that assisted residents. "It takes even more courage to take on a landlord and stand up for your rights."

Elizabeth Taylor was another resident who was displaced by the fire. "It was almost three years to the week that we got the keys back to the place," said Taylor. "The moment of going in the apartment and seeing the views again and having the space and the air and the light...was really amazing."

Taylor said the experience has made her a stronger person but that she's glad to be home again.

"I'm glad I hung on, I'm glad I believed in New York City, I'm glad I believed in AAFE...I feel very blessed," said Taylor.

Councilwoman Chin was on hand and lauded AAFE, the residents of 289 Grand and officials for their work in having the building restored. She also said the amount of fires in Chinatown is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

"Fire in Chinatown is an everyday occurrence," said Chin. "We just have to find a solution to create better affordable housing and that's something we really have to work on starting now."

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