By David Harvey
*This article has been updated, see corrections below.
The Department of Buildings website shows that for the past 15 years, an abandoned house at 85-53 98th Street in Woodhaven has received complaints ranging from structural damage to the presence of squatters. On February 20, at 11 p.m., a fire on the property spread to a neighboring residence. While no one was injured in the fire, the damage to both homes was significant.
According to Ed Wendell of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association (WRBA), the fire illuminated a citywide failure to address abandoned and neglected homes that could act as kindling to tragedy.
“Everybody failed,” he said. “But you can’t point your finger at one place.”
Wendell said that when he visited the house last week, he met a neighbor who had frequently complained that the house was dangerous—he had even called the WRBA.
“For years he worried about the house only to have his nightmare finally come true,” Wendell said.
Meanwhile, the WRBA has been working to drive attention toward other houses in the neighborhood that pose similar risks. A neglected, graffiti-speckled house at 88-32 80th Street has been the focus of 11 complaints to DOB since April 2000. Those concerned about trespassing children and homeless are nearly identical to complaints about the home on 98th Street. Just as with the house on 98th street, all but the most recent are marked “resolved.” Both often show that inspectors found no violation or failed to gain access.
“I have this fear with this house on 80th Street that there will be people who go down, get their picture taken and say ‘this is unacceptable’ but nothing will get done,” Wendell said.
According to the DOB’s annual report released earlier this year, there were 337 inspectors that conducted 335,449 inspections. On average, they would have conducted just fewer than four inspections each per workday—not excluding holidays. The 21 complaints at both properties in Woodhaven were reviewed by 18 different inspectors.
While the owners of the abandoned home on 80th street have been issued two violations from the 11 complaints, both were resolved. The home on 98th Street that caught fire on February 20 has five active violations, stretching from 1997 to 2000. All of those violations are marked as having no recorded compliance.
Gilbert pointed out that no complaints were made to the DOB about the property between 2004 and 2010. Last year’s sole complaint, in March, was found to have been resolved on a follow-up survey in June, she said.
In 2010, the DOB implemented a streamlined process for property owners that wish to resolve violations. By admitting to the violation they can pay the minimum fine up front. According to the DOB’s report, this process generated $100,000 for the city from more than 100 fines in 2010.
Last year, the DOB also expanded its living safely campaign against illegally converted apartments. The campaign was initiated in 2009 after a deadly fire in Woodside. On February 23, following a fatal Brooklyn fire, the DOB distributed flyers in Brooklyn. The Department has distributed more than 100,000 flyers about illegal conversions throughout the five boroughs since the program was launched.
Reports from the fire department show that there were 4,785 structural fires last year, and 389 in January of this year.
The most recent complaint regarding the house on 98th Street that caught fire was posted on the DOB website the day after the fire. Gilbert said an inspector visited the property on March 2.
“The department sent an inspector to the property and found repairs are underway and will continue to monitor the property,” she said.
The owner of the property—a Brooklyn firefighter with Engine 207—could not be reached for comment.
*An earlier version quoted Jen Gilbert as having said that all violations at 85-93 98th Street were resolved or that work had been completed. In fact, there was a miscommunication: violations marked as active are not resolved, and it is unclear whether required work was completed. There are five active violations, not four.
The DOB did not pass out 100,000 flyers on Feb. 23; they have distributed 100,000 flyers since implementing the “Living Safely” campaign in 2009.
The follow-up to a March 2010 complaint, in June 2010, was “survey” not an “inspection” as previously stated in the article, according to DOB spokesperson Jen Gilbert.