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City shuts illegal boarding house

A tenant checks out the damage left by the fire before the city Department of Buildings vacated the illegal boarding house. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

The city last weekend vacated an illegal South Jamaica boarding house, which is the target of a lawsuit, after a suspicious fire broke out in the cellar.

On Saturday evening, the FDNY put out a small fire in the basement of the three-quarter house, at 144-01 Lakewood Ave., which just two weeks ago was the subject of a TimesLedger Newspapers article about a class-action lawsuit against the building’s landlord, Yury Baumblit.

The lawsuit claims Baumblit operates his three-quarter houses as unlicensed rehabilitative and transitional housing programs that treat tenants as clients, violating their tenants’ rights.

There were about a dozen women living in bunk beds from the cellar up through the attic of the two-story house, according to tenants.

One of those tenants, Valerie Williamson, said Baumblit had illegally evicted her from the bunk she slept in on the building’s second floor more than two weeks ago for her participation in the lawsuit, and she claimed a victory when Baumblit admitted in Queens Housing Court he had illegally evicted her and agreed to let her return. The class-action lawsuit is still pending in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

On the night of the fire, there were about a dozen or so women in the South Jamaica building, all of whom escaped without injury, the Fire Department said.

Reetha Allen, who said she had been staying at the two-story house for the past five months, said someone set a mattress in the cellar on fire.

FDNY Deputy Chief Jim DiDomenico said the fire “appears to be suspicious” and fire marshals would investigate its cause.

Following the fire, the city Department of Buildings issued a full vacate order on the building, citing structural instability due to fire damage in the cellar and first floor. The inspector also cited the building for illegal occupancy.

The DOB received a complaint in October that the bunk beds in the living area were blocking an exit on the second floor and that there was no second means of egress available in case of a fire. The department did not inspect the building, however, because one- and two-family houses do not require a second means of egress.

A complaint was also filed with DOB over illegal living spaces and subdivided rooms at the house, but the DOB inspector was denied access to the building on two separate occasions.

Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, said proprietors of three-quarter houses can make a handsome profit by packing as many tenants as possible into a building. He said the businesses have proliferated in the face of funding cuts to legitimate supportive housing programs and an overstressed city shelter system.

“Having said that, there’s no reason in the world the city should be tolerating these illegal dwellings,” he said. “It’s not surprising to hear about a fire at one of these places. It’s one of our biggest fears.”

The protocol for when the DOB vacates a building is the department notifies the Red Cross, whose volunteers assist tenants to find temporary housing with the help of the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

In this case, however, the Red Cross said it was not notified by DOB.

On Monday evening, former tenant Williamson said she had finally gotten in contact with HPD and was making plans to stay at a hotel.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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