Vol. 15, No. 16      August 15 - 28, 2002



     
 

Boy's Death in Fire Follows Landlord Neglect

By JORDAN MOSS and WILLIAM WICHERT

A fire in a neglected Norwood apartment building claimed the life of 8-year-old Jashawn Parker just before midnight on Aug. 6. The PS 94 student, whose summer school classwork work was on display at the memorial outside the building the next day, submerged himself in a bathtub full of water to stave off the flames which followed a loud explosion in the apartment. But that quick thinking wasn't enough to protect the boy from years of landlord neglect that had tenants, city officials and advocates in court for at least two years in hopes of taking the building away from its owner.

The cause of the fire at 3569 DeKalb Ave. is still under investigation, though a number of tenants reported they regularly smelled gas in the building and in the Parkers' apartment. Lakeisha Miller, a neighbor and friend of the Parkers, said she smelled gas in the apartment a week and a half earlier.

"Paul, I smell gas," Miller remembered telling Jashawn's father, Paul Parker, who is still being treated for smoke inhalation at Montefiore Medical Center. "Everything is off but I still smell gas."

Parker's other son, Paul Jr,. suffered second-degree burns on his arms, chest and legs.

Another tenant, Lisette Mora, called in a complaint the day before the fire to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams said that because the complaint - registered as #1717953 - was for sporadic power and flickering lights, "we referred the caller to the proper department, which is the Department of Buildings." Mora called that agency's call center but said she only got an answering machine. The next day, after the explosion, Mora, who lives across the hall from the Parkers, saw Paul Jr. running from the apartment. "His skin was peeling," she recounted for the tenants gathered in the hallway the morning after the fire. "And he kept screaming, 'My brother is in there.'"

Electrical and wiring problems plague the building. In Miller's apartment on the third floor, there are few working electrical outlets. Other non-working outlets are plastered over and the working ones are overloaded with plugs from air conditioners, TVs and other appliances. A light switch plate hangs loose out of the wall with the wires exposed in her child's bedroom. A couple of days after the fire, the Web site of the Buildings Department indicated an active complaint that stated, "Electrical fire in the bsmt., a lot of defective wiring, and there is a fan on the wires to keep the wires from overheating."

In Justina Hernandez' apartment on the first floor, the ceilings leak and the walls are buckling.

Sally Dunford of West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a Norwood-based agency that had advocated on behalf of the tenants in housing court, said there was not one apartment she saw in the building that didn't have mold or mildew. The landlord would occasionally plaster to repair walls but did nothing to fix the plumbing inside the walls that was causing the problem, Dunford and tenants said.

These problems are only a few of those on the list of 387 housing code violations on HPD's Web site, many of them "C" violations, the most serious.

For over two years, the tenants had frequent dates in Bronx Housing Court, where a series of three judges (they rotate every six months) threatened landlord Eric Gladstein, owner of Quest Management, with a 7A action. That would have transferred day-to-day management to a third party, such as a not-for-profit housing company. But the judges, seeing some action on some of the violations, repeatedly gave Gladstein more time to make further repairs.

Jim Buckley, executive director of University Neighborhood Housing Program, a local nonprofit, said 7A actions are good when they work, but, all too often, tenants and their advocates, even in the most dire situations, are forced to play the waiting game. "If the landlord is fighting it, it definitely doesn't move forward very quickly," Buckley said. "It doesn't surprise me that the judge is adjourning it, but it's part of the problem, when the urgency is so clear, [that] the presumption on the part of the court is in giving postponements."

Gladstein, who owns two other Bronx buildings in other areas of the Bronx, even kept the building after he had been indicted for defrauding the government by conspiring with an appointee in the Giuliani administration to steal housing subsidy money meant for poor tenants. He later plead guilty and received only three years probation. (See story on page 1.)

Gladstein did not return a call for comment, and according to HPD, he may not be legally responsible for the building anymore. HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams said there was a "bonified transfer of interest" to John Cirillo, who, like Gladstein, is affiliated with Quest Management of Scarsdale. But tenants say they still call the same phone number and get the same answering machine when they call, and they say the staff is still the same. Gladstein is also still listed as the building's owner on HPD's Web site. The building has a brand new super since the fire, and though tenants hope he can make some changes, they say he follows a long list of supers who were not given the resources to improve the building, including Paul Parker, who had the job for a brief stint.

Abrams said her agency has requested a meeting with Cirillo. "We want the new owner to meet with us and review his work plan," she said.

Meanwhile, as Jashawn's friends, neighbors and relatives prepare for his funeral this week, they remembered a happy, playful child who everyone at 3569 DeKalb Ave. seemed to consider one of their own.

Miller laughed as she remembered that Jashawn "had big ears, a big smile, and a big heart to go along with it. His smile would light up a room."

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