Williamsburg Fire Exposes Urgent Need for Renters Protection

By Stefanie Donayre | [email protected]

In the early hours of Dec. 15, a devastating fire swept through a two-story residential building in Williamsburg, displacing residents and presenting equally numerous challenges for those in adjacent apartments. The fire, caused by unattended food cooking on a stove, began at nearly 4 a.m. at 137 Kingsland Ave., spread to 135 and 139 Kingsland, and burned for three hours before being contained by FDNY. Residents were evacuated, and the Red Cross was called in to assist. However, for many, the challenges were just beginning.

One resident, Shantelle Lim, who resided at 139 Kingsland Ave. since March 2023, was out of town during the incident when she received frantic calls from her roommate at 5 a.m. unraveling the emergency.

“At first, I didn’t realize how serious it was, until he told me that he and my other neighbors were being sent to a hotel and were unable to re-enter our building,” wrote Lim in an email interview. “We didn’t have renters insurance. No one in our building did.”

The absence of renters insurance meant there was no financial safety net to protect personal belongings.

While building owners are mandated to insure the residence, this coverage primarily shields the structure alone. In case of fire, water damage, or other disasters, a landlord’s insurance doesn’t extend to renters’ personal items.

The management at 139 Kingsland Ave. told residents to find alternative housing. Lim, affected by a layoff in 2023, struggled to secure another apartment and had to relocate back to California to stay with family.

“I came back to NYC briefly to settle things at the apartment and retrieve whatever belongings that may be salvageable, which were none,” wrote Lim. “I think more efforts to be proactive and availability for conversation would be helpful.”

In response to the challenges faced by residents, District 34 Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez’s spokesperson shed light on the city’s response and acknowledged the district’s high rate of residential fires, emphasizing the need for improved transparency and communication.

“The transparency comes from being able to track the process from A to Z,” said the spokesperson. “If A is being displaced, and Z is being able to get back into your home, being able to read the whole alphabet in between.”

The spokesperson mentioned an upcoming package of bills focused on fire remediation, aiming to add transparency and accountability and prioritize essential processes after a fire. The bills seek to bridge the communication gap between agencies and affected residents.

“Our office has been specifically looking into if there is anything that we can do, mandate, or we don’t really want to mandate renters’ insurance, but provide in terms of renters insurance,” said the spokesperson.

The aftermath of this Williamsburg fire highlights the necessity of better transparency, communication, and resident support networks. City officials are working toward legislative measures to address the shortcomings in the current system and better support those who may face similar emergencies in the future, while the affected community navigates through this devastating fire.

Fire Ravages Nine Business in Heart of Satmar Neighborhood in South Williamsburg

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Storefront in the aftermath of the fire

Smoke rose over the cars on Brooklyn Queens Expressway Aug. 20 after a fire engulfed nine stores on Lee Avenue in South Williamsburg. 10 New York Fire Department firefighters were injured in their attempts to control the five alarm fire.

In a press conference, Laura Kavanagh, NYC Fire Commissioner, said that the call came in at approximately 9 a.m. and though fire department personnel arrived at the site in under four minutes, the fire was serious by time FDNY appeared on scene. According to Kavanagh, while members of the FDNY were injured, one firefighter sustaining life-threatening red-tag wounds, no other people or animals were hurt.

John Hodgens, Chief of Department for FDNY, said in a press conference that the situation on Lee was quite advanced by the time the call came in and that up to 200 fire department and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel were needed in order to control the fire and secure the site. According to Hodgens, most of the stores were closed, so firefighters had to break through the metal roll down gates of each storefront.

“It takes a lot of staffing, a lot of hard work, it’s not an easy task. Our other members have to go in and search to make sure there are no victims and start opening with tools the fire that is hidden above the ceiling [and under the roof],” Hodgens said. “It’s a very labor intensive operation, and they did a great job. Unfortunately, a couple were injured, but they are doing well.”

Hodgens said the 90 degree heat on Sunday added a further challenge to fighting the fire, as well as the sizable amount of smoke from the burning street block, but that the fire was under control as of the early afternoon. To ensure that the fire did not spread to the multi-unit dwelling next door and that no residents were hurt, Hodgens said that fire department personnel secured the wall bordering the fire and evacuated all residents. In accordance with FDNY protocol, an investigation led by a fire marshall will soon begin in order to determine the cause of the fire.

Carlos Masri, a South Williamsburg community member, said Lee Avenue is considered to be an economic and cultural hub of the Hasidic community, and that the damages to the area will be considerable.

Local community members gather around the site of the fire on Lee Avenue

“This will affect [the community] very much. This was one of the main centers where people will come here throughout the holidays, or before shabbat. It’s the main hub of this few blocks, and this is one of the major strips. There are restaurants, dry-good stores, all kinds of stuff. It’s like a little mall within the community,” Masri said.

Masri said many Hasidic families right now are out of New York City for the summer while their children attend summer camps, which also might be one of the reasons that all stores were empty at the time of the fire. However, with the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah fast approaching in September, Masri said that the community will feel the effects of the loss more strongly.
According to Masri, having strong local businesses is important for the Hasidic community because they are in compliance with Jewish laws and cultural norms.

“It’s a unique neighborhood because everyone is shopping locally,” Masri said. “Because of traditions and rules, it requires you to shop locally in accordance with Jewish laws and Hasidic culture so that’s why it’s really important to have

FDNY personnel on the scene

local stores. It’s not like you can go out to any other place.”

Lincoln Restler, New York City councilmember for the district, said the fire is a tragedy for the South Williamsburg community, and that he is saddened by the incident.

“This is the street that everybody in South Williamsburg comes to shop for all their needs. To have a devastating fire like this, that destroyed nine beloved local businesses, it breaks my heart,” Restler said. “There are many dozens of people who worked on this corner who don’t have jobs, and there are nine small business owners who poured their blood, sweat and tears into building out great small businesses for our community. In a flash, it’s all gone.

Restler said that the city council will work with the business owners and community leaders to rebuild the Lee Avenue shopping center.

“It’s going to be a long road, a long process, but we’re committed to working as closely as we can with each of the businesses affected to help them get back on their feet,” Restler said.

Early morning fire tears through Queens Blvd. building

An early morning fire on Queens Boulevard on Thursday tore through a row of businesses in Sunnyside.
Hundreds of firefighters and emergency personnel responded to the four-alarm blaze on the south side of the boulevard between 43rd and 44th streets. Three suffered minor injuries.
The fire started in Taiyo Food on 44th Street, and quickly engulfed the four neighboring businesses, Mad for Chicken, Bajeko Sekuwa, Malingo and Mad Cafe. No employees were injured.
In December of 2018, a large fire destroyed several businesses just a few blocks east on the same side of Queens Boulevard. That property is still a large, graffiti-covered vacant lot.
As they did after that fire, the Sunnyside Shines Business Improvement District has started a fund to help the five businesses. Donations can be made on GoFundMe or by emailing [email protected].

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