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Six Weeks After East Village Explosion, Neighbors Clash With City Over Acceptable Living Conditions

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It's been over six weeks since a gas explosion led to the destruction of three buildings on the corner of Second Avenue and East 7th Street. As numbers 119 to 123 caught fire and then collapsed, two people were killed and many homes and businesses were lost. Though the cause hasn't been confirmed, speculation centers on an illegal gas tap as the source of the leak and subsequent explosion. Though neighboring buildings still stand, they were not unscarred. To shine a light on just one of many problems that arose in the catastrophe's wake, safety issues continue to plague the residents of 125 Second Avenue, which lines the north side of corner's now-empty lot. From ruined possessions to contamination of all stripes, their worries continue even though the building has been deemed habitable by the city and rent can be charged again.

Several things happened to 125 Second Avenue. Firefighters broke down doors and removed windows so they could fight the fire from there. But the impact of the accident destroyed many windows on the building's south side, and the fire itself damaged some units on the upper floors.

Residents told Curbed NY that at least one floor collapsed. Considerable debris entered the building, damaging residents' belongings, including furniture, to the point that the items and any food in permeable packaging needed to be thrown away.

It's that debris, primarily, that has residents concerned. With the exception of five units (which had actual fire and water damage), residents have been allowed back in their apartments for a few weeks, but some don't yet consider them livable. In addition to obviously necessary repairs and cleanup, they're worried about contamination. Is there lead? Are other hazards present, either from the destroyed buildings or as a result of fire damage to 125 itself? The city has conducted considerable air testing from the street and found no hazards, but has not yet tested inside the building.

Wasim Lone of the local community organizing group Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) helped to arrange for the city's Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) to visit the building a week and a half ago. GOLES has been working with residents to address their concerns and navigate the sometimes bureaucratic, sometimes unresponsive city agencies in the aftermath of the explosion. 125 Second Avenue resident Yvonne Collery said they waited two weeks for the visit and expected to see HPD's Deputy Commissioner. However, she said only three low-level inspectors showed up. "To say we are pissed is an understatement," she said.

A city official, who asked not to be identified, told Curbed NY that 125 Second Avenue has no history of lead paint hazard violations with HPD, nor any past closed violations and current open violations for lead paint. The official said air quality monitoring was performed by HPD (via a contractor) as well as by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) at the site during the duration of the recovery and demolition processes and all tests for airborne asbestos were negative. However, those air quality tests were performed at the explosion site and not within 125 Second Avenue. Residents report that HPD inspectors who visited on Thursday thought it was odd that no health inspections were done inside the building. Residents have not yet received results of that HPD walkthrough, and GOLES is trying to raise funds for a private health inspection.

Another major issue for tenants, though, is rent. The landlord said that, as of the lifting of the units' vacate orders in mid-April, he would start charging rent. But that is rent on units deemed unlivable by their tenants. At least one tenant said the landlord has yet to actually ask for that rent. HPD doesn't have the authority to intervene. "Rent/lease is a legal contract between a tenant and owner," according to an official. "If any of the apartments are rent stabilized a tenant can try applying to the State's Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR) for a rent reduction."

[In the Instagram photo above, 125 Second Avenue can be seen standing to the right of the explosion site.]

The DEP said it does visual inspection of "bulk samples" from the explosion site, such as insulation, piping, and roofing materials, as well as air sampling (from 10 monitors around the site) for asbestos. All inspections and tests came back negative. When asked about testing inside 125 Second Avenue, we were told that if nothing was found in the explosion site, nothing would have ended up inside the building.

The Department of Health sent the following statement: "In general, the public health risk for people living or working near a fire is low, and any contaminants in the air are likely to be present for only a brief time. New York State air monitors showed air quality levels had returned to typical levels less than 24 hours after the fire, and of the roughly 300 air samples analyzed by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, all tested negative for asbestos fibers. As a result, sampling the air in the buildings wasn't necessary. People returning to their homes can expect smoke odors to linger inside their apartments. While these odors can be unpleasant, they are not generally associated with health concerns. The best way to mitigate is to clean or discard smoke-effected items and increase air movement through the space. Dust from the building collapse that may have settled in can also be an irritant, especially for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions. We recommend that tenants speak with their landlords about cleaning any accumulations of dust and soot from the explosion."

The DOH recommends visiting here for more information. We asked DOH about lead, but have not received a response.

"We take public health and safety extremely seriously, and have been committed to helping those affected by the explosion return to their homes as safely and responsibly as possible," said the official who issued a response to Curbed NY on the condition of anonymity. "We have also been meeting with tenants as well as elected officials and community groups representing tenants, to help address any concerns they may have regarding their safety since reoccupying their apartments."

The building has the majority of its services restored including running water, heat and hot water, and electricity. Cooking gas service has yet to be restored, however, and we're told by HPD that the building's owner is working to have that restored. (Operational gas, it turns out, is not a requirement for the city to deem a building habitable.)

As for cleanup, it's painted as a shared responsibility of both the owner and the tenants. Additionally, the city says the Department of Health provided information on proper cleaning procedures, and the American Red Cross provided cleanup kits for the affected buildings.

All of that is little consolation to residents, though, whose concerns about problems from their belongings to their health roll on unabated. It seems that this is one issue where tenants and the city diverge on what makes for acceptable living conditions.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.