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.

New QBG head looks to take garden to next level

By Jessica Meditz
[email protected]

Evie Hantzopoulos is the new executive director of the Queens Botanical Garen. (Photo: Eryn Hatzithomas)

Evie Hantzopoulos began her role as the executive director of the Queens Botanical Garden in late January, just in time to see her favorite plant, the red dogwood, in its prime.
In the same way the dogwood’s stems turn a beautiful bright red in the winter, Hantzopoulos brings a bright new perspective to the 39-acre oasis in Flushing.
She fills the shoes of Susan Lacerte, who held the position for 27 years and brought the garden back to life during a time of crisis.
“I’m super grateful for the work Susan has done, like helping to make the new Visitor and Administration Building happen and expanding the collections,” said Hantzopoulos. “Now I think about how I can build on her incredible work and honor the work that she did, and then really work with the staff and the community to take the garden to the next level.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Hantzopoulos lives in Astoria with her husband and three children, and has called Queens her home for nearly 24 years.
Although her background is not in environmental horticulture, Hantzopoulos feels passionately about gardening and environmental causes.
“My parents were both farmers when they lived in Greece, and they brought a lot of that knowledge with them when they came here,” she said. “I garden in my backyard, and when my kids were younger I helped bring gardens to their schools.
“I know a bit as an amateur, but I’m going to be learning a lot in terms of horticulture and working in the garden,” she added. “I’m very grateful we have experts here who really know their stuff.”
Hantzopoulos has extensive experience managing nonprofits. She served has worked at Global Kids for the last 25 years, the final 11 years serving as executive director.
Global Kids is a nonprofit organization that works with kids in all five boroughs, focusing on youth development, civic engagement and global education in underserved communities.
In addition to developing the organization’s programs and expanding its outreach to different cities, Hantzopoulos spent time mentoring educators and teaching workshops.
“Children add a perspective to the conversation that is really meaningful and critical,” she said. “Everyone questions how much they know, but children have thoughts, ideas, experiences and viewpoints that should be listened to, because a lot of times it’s their future we’re talking about.”
Hantzopoulos is excited to continue her journey as an educator through her new role at the Queens Botanical Garden, especially with a $34 million state-of-the-art Education Center on the horizon.
The building, which is expected to break ground in the fall, will allow staff to serve more than double the amount of people through expanded programming.
“Right now, our education building is not serving our needs,” said Hantzopoulos. “It’s very limited.
“Also during COVID, there’s limitations on how many people we can have in the building,” she added. “This new building is going to be designed to be adaptable, with indoor and outdoor classrooms.”
Hantzopoulos has been a member of Community Board 1 since 2010, and also co-founded Frontline Foods Queens, which distributes meals to frontline workers, NYCHA residents and food pantries.
She is a founding member of Astoria Mutual Aid Network, Astoria Urban Ecology Alliance, and 31st Avenue Open Street.
She recently ran in the Democratic Primary for City Council in Astoria.
“The experience was certainly different than anything I’ve ever done before, and I learned a lot,” Hantzopoulos said of the campaign. “Now I’m figuring out how to serve the city and community in a different capacity.”
Hantzopoulos acknowledged that although the garden looks a bit different during the colder months, it is still a serene escape from the chaos of Flushing’s busy streets.
She feels optimistic about the warmer months to come, as indicated by the 2,500 people who attended the recent Lunar New Year celebration at the garden.

Evie Hantzopoulos speaks at the garden’s recent Lunar New Year celebration. (Photo: Josh Feinberg)

But most of all, Hantzopoulos is grateful to be able to wake up every morning and go to work at such a beautiful place.
“I wanted to pick a place where I could fully get behind its mission and potential, as well as somewhere that I could marry my different interests,” she said.
“I found a great group of people and a beautiful space that so many people love,” she added. “Now, it’s about working with the team to figure out how to build upon the foundation and really showcase just how special of a place it is.”

Facts & fiction

Dear Editor,
Most people don’t agree with FOX News, they just enjoy watching a fantasy program.
Why else would a judge defend a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Donald Trump by saying no reasonable person expects Tucker Carlson to report the truth. In February 2004, FOX “News” won a legal appeal that said it has no legal obligation to be truthful in it’s reporting.
FOX argued that the FCC’s policy that the intentional falsification of the news is not a legal mandate, requirement or regulation, and that FOX may falsify news reports.
Sorry about all these troublesome “facts.”
Sincerely,
Robert LaRosa, Sr.
Whitestone

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