Displaced After Sunnyside Fire, Residents Grapple With What’s Next

By Celia Bernhardt | [email protected]

A small crowd of volunteers stood underneath the scaffolding at 43-09 47th Avenue on Monday morning, listening to updates delivered by Councilmember Julie Won. 

It was the second day where sixth floor residents, displaced by a raging fire in the Sunnyside building in late December, were given time slots to enter their apartments and move out their possessions. With the building under a strict vacate order, it’s also the first time some residents have been able to lay eyes on their unit in weeks. 

Christa Kimlicko Jones, a building resident and volunteer, has no idea when she’ll be able to retrieve her belongings. Her unit was closer to the center of the blaze. 

“We don’t know yet when we’re gonna get access,” Kimlicko Jones said. “We’re told that that area in the center of the building isn’t structurally sound yet, so it’s not safe to be in there.” 

Beyond possessions, Kimlicko Jones is deeply worried about her cat, which she hasn’t been able to find since the fire. 

“It would be nice to have information about when we might be able to get in, or at least see our unit. But we do understand that that is not necessarily up to management,” Kimlicko Jones added. “The lack of information is hard.”

Meanwhile, many of those who have already visited their units have reported that their belongings have been looted. 

After A+E Real Estate Management, the owners of the building, notified some residents that they would have a three-hour window to retrieve their belongings with less than 24 hours notice, Councilmember Won sent out a call for volunteers via X (formerly Twitter). 

“We try to have 10 people for each moving slot of three hours to come and volunteer,” Won said. “And to thank them, I make sure that we get donations from local restaurants and bakeries for breakfast, restaurants for lunch, so that they’re fed.”

Only one or two households will be able to go through the moving process at a time due to the building’s damage, an A+E spokesperson explained. The move-outs will continue on a rolling basis, likely daily. 

Last Thursday was a bumpy start.

“They told all the tenants that there would be professional movers here. It turns out that the professional movers are a cleanup crew. And they didn’t have saran wrap, they didn’t even have proper tape last time,” Won said. “Things were falling out of the boxes.” 

Won added that neither moving trucks or storage units were provided by management—though her office secured a free truck for tenants that cannot cannot afford their own.

“I think there was a little bit of confusion on the ground,” a spokesperson for A+E said. “Now they have sort of a handle on how it’s going, and it seems to be going more smoothly.” 

“It’s going to take a while to do the whole building. They’re prioritizing people who haven’t been in their units yet,” an A+E spokesperson said. “Some folks just don’t know the condition of their unit; they haven’t been in it yet. So they don’t know, am I moving everything? Or is literally everything a soaked or charred mess?”

Councilmember Julie Won speaks with volunteers.

Leaving Home

As some residents work to salvage what remains of their belongings, many others face a huge transition: Tuesday, Jan. 9 was the deadline for them to move out of hotel rooms that A+E has paid for, and either accept a temporary lease at a vacant A+E apartment or fend for themselves. 

Tenants will pay a similar price for these new units as they did for their Sunnyside apartments, including those who lived in rent-stabilized units. Relocated residents will also receive a furniture stipend; A+E did not disclose the amount. 

Available apartments are concentrated in Kew Gardens or East Harlem—leaving families with deep roots in Sunnyside with an impossible decision. 

“People’s lives are in this neighborhood,” Kimlicko Jones said. “We’ve been there for 20 years, this is our 20th year. But people [have lived here] 40 years, 50 years. It’s one of those kinds of buildings—in addition to people that have been there for just a few months. People’s lives are really in this neighborhood.”

Logistical Issues like commutes to work, childrens’ commute to local schools, and proximity to certain doctors are heavy on some residents’ minds as well. Judy Zangwill, Executive Director of Sunnyside Community Services, remembered the harrowing situations she spoke with residents about in the days right after the fire. 

“One man came up to me and said, you know, ‘My father is on dialysis, we really need a place close to a dialysis center…and we’re gonna run out of money for his medication.’ I mean, it’s things like that we were hearing,” Zangwill said.

Kimlicko Jones and her husband were offered a unit in East Harlem, but have decided not to take it. “We’re just trying to figure it out,” she said. “It’s just too far from our lives.” 

Kimlicko Jones has renter’s insurance, which she says has been a great help as she navigates the aftermath of the fire. Most building residents, according to Councilmember Won, don’t have that. 

“Out of 104 units, about 20 have signed a new temporary lease to move somewhere else,” Won said. “That leaves a very large percentage who are uncertain of where they will go.”

Jan. 9 is—as of press time on Tuesday—the final move-out deadline after an uncertain back-and-forth that played out for weeks. The Red Cross initially footed the bill for hotel rooms, but withdrew on December 27; it seemed at first that this would be the end of hotel accommodations, but then A+E stepped in to cover the cost. Residents and advocates then were told they might have until Jan. 2. Now, Jan. 9 looks like the final decision. 

It’s just one example of a tangle of communication issues and confusion residents and advocates have waded through, as up to 100 households carry out individual communication with A+E representatives. 

Sunnyside Strong

“The hopeful side, or the other side of this, is how kind everyone has been,” Won said, highlighting the presence of volunteers. 

Zangwill expressed the same sentiment. “The community — it was wonderful how they all came together, they’re still coming together,” she said. Zangwill recalled mass donations of clothing in the immediate aftermath of the fire, as well as volunteer efforts to get clothing through the laundry before it was offered to residents. “We’ve been getting multiple phone calls and emails about ‘what can I do [to help]?’”

Sunnyside Community Services launched a GoFundMe after the fire, which has amassed over $114,000 in donations so far. Zangwill explained that SCS will meet and collaborate with displaced tenants to determine the best way to distribute funds across the group. “We’re gonna try to get the funds out as soon as possible,” she said.

“It’s been the most life-changing, traumatic, catastrophic event, it’s totally life-changing…[We’re] just trying to get our feet on the ground. ” Kimlicko Jones said. “But we’re one of over 400 stories. This building is totally vacated right now, and we have over 400 tenants who are trying to find their life.”

“It’s moment to moment, day to day, ups and downs—trying to really focus on positive things,” Kimlicko Jones said. “Sunnyside is an incredible community. Our representatives are incredible.”

 

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