Edward D. Murphy
Portland Press Herald, Maine
Jan. 13—Portland-based LIHC Investment Group is being sued as one of three owners of a 19-story Bronx apartment building that caught fire Sunday, killing 17 people including eight children.
A malfunctioning space heater sparked a fire that filled the building with thick smoke Sunday morning, causing New York City’s deadliest blaze in three decades, The Associated Press reported.
Two residents filed a lawsuit this week in Bronx County’s supreme civil court, with the plaintiffs’ attorneys seeking class-action status, according to several media reports. The plaintiffs, married couple Rosa Reyes and Felix Martinez, allege that poorly maintained safety features of the building contributed to the high death count.
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According to a separate notice of claim filed by the plaintiffs’ lawyers against New York officials and agencies, the apartment building’s self-closing doors malfunctioned during the blaze, allowing smoke to fill the halls and stairwells. The plaintiffs allege that the doors’ self-closing mechanisms failed because they had not been properly maintained.
New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors to be spring-loaded and slam shut automatically, according to the AP. The lawsuit seeks up to $3 billion in compensatory and punitive damages for tenants.
The three investment firms that own the building released a statement saying they were “devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” but they did not respond directly to the lawsuit’s allegations.
The statement also said the owners are cooperating with the fire department and other agencies investigating the cause of the fire as well as trying to assist the affected residents.
LIHC is one of three owners of the apartment building, along with San Francisco-based Belveron Partners and The Camber Property Group based in New York. According to The New York Times, LIHC and its partners purchased the building, Twin Parks North West, along with seven other affordable housing properties in the Bronx for $166 million in 2019.
LIHC and Belveron together own 80 percent of the building, but it was Camber that was responsible for day-to-day operations, said Kelly Magee, a spokeswoman for LIHC.
As part of the purchase, the three companies assumed $36 million in two loans issued by New York state’s Housing Finance Authority to assist in the transaction.
The loans were guaranteed by Freddie Mac, the federal government-backed mortgage lender, meaning they carried a lower interest rate for the investors. Magee said one of the loans, originally for $25 million, has been paid down to $17 million.
Federal housing aid provided vouchers on 76 units in the Bronx building to assist residents with rent payments. The Washington Post reported Thursday that while state agencies inspected those subsidized units, they did not inspect the building itself to see if it met safety codes.
Firefighters responding to Sunday’s blaze found victims on every floor, many of them in cardiac and respiratory arrest, New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told AP. Some could not escape because of the volume of smoke, he said.
Some residents said they initially ignored wailing smoke alarms because false alarms were so common in the 120-unit building built in the early 1970s as affordable housing, the AP reported.
LIHC’s two partners are Charlie and Andrew Gendron, who are father and son, respectively, Magee said.
The company said it has more than $5.5 billion in holdings and invests in affordable housing projects, with most of its real estate holdings outside Maine. It does own at least one Maine property, Munjoy South Apartments in Portland. The company’s website lists other apartment properties it owns in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California and Virginia.
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