About nine months after one of the deadliest fires in Bronx history, Vernessa Cunningham says she is still fighting to get back what she lost.
Cunningham, a 61-year-old survivor of the Twin Parks apartment complex fire that killed 17 people and displaced dozens on January 9, lived first at a Ramada Inn and then at a Best Western Plus, both in the South Bronx.
New York City, in conjunction with nonprofit group BronxWorks, had covered the bill for his hotel stays, part of what a city hall spokesperson said was a pledge to keep fire survivors trying to find new hotel apartments until at least October 5. , or more if necessary.
But on August 22, Cunningham was at the hospital in Harlem, where she has worked for 24 years, when she answered a call from a hotel employee who told her she had to leave her room “immediately. “, she recalls. The clerk cited a letter and said it had been sent to her a week earlier, but Cunningham says she never received that letter and had no idea her time was up.
After calling council member Oswald Feliz, whose district encompasses Twin Parks, Cunningham says she’s had four more days to find a new place to live. Feliz did not respond to questions from THE CITY about his involvement.
“It’s just been traumatic,” Cunningham said. “That’s it.”
“In this for the long haul”
A City Hall spokesperson, speaking on the merits, told THE CITY that most families in Twin Parks have found new apartments and only three are staying in hotels, including two that have been linked to housing permanent. The spokesperson said the remaining family’s stay at their hotel would be extended beyond October 5 if necessary.
This list does not include Cunningham, who had been staying in hotels in the South Bronx since the night of the fire. A few weeks later, she says, the city sent her $2,500 in financial aid through BronxWorks, then another $10,000 in July. Each family affected by the fire received at least $12,250 in cash assistance, according to the City Hall spokesperson.
In February, Cunningham says, management at Twin Parks and BronxWorks told her the two-bedroom apartment she had shared with her adult daughter would soon be safe for her to return to. But when he visited Cunningham said ‘the flat was never cleaned as it was supposed to’ and had a lingering smell of dead animals in the fire and fumes.
“Every time I walked into that apartment, my hands came out with black coal all over the place,” she said, adding that her mattress and furniture were still smoke damaged.
The City Hall spokesman said the families all had offers to have their apartments restored and that Cunningham’s visit would have taken place before an evacuation order was lifted in April, so what she saw in her apartment would not have represented what she would have returned. .
His return visit also came before Eric Adams said in March that “New York City is committed to helping the more than 150 families who have suffered from the untold tragedy at Twin Parks and we continue to keep this promise day after day”.
The mayor made the vow while announcing an additional $3 million was going to BronxWorks for families affected by the fire — a pledge that came days after DocumentedNY published a story in which survivors accused the city of not not doing enough to help them rebuild their lives.
Adams continued, “We’re here for the long haul because picking up the pieces won’t be easy.”
Indeed, it has not been easy for Cunningham.
Building management and BronxWorks told Cunningham that tenants would start getting paid rent again by April 1, she recalled. Uninterested in returning, Cunningham began gathering as much of her surviving possessions from her old apartment, which was above the ground where the fire started, and into storage — with the help of BronxWorks, which also associated each dislocated family with a case manager. , covering the cost for as long as she stayed at the hotel. Her smoke-damaged mattress and furniture were abandoned.
While the City Hall spokesperson said this week that the families were also all being offered the option of moving to another apartment in the building, Cunningham said she had never received such an offer.
“If they had offered it to me, I would have told them what to do with it. But they didn’t offer me another apartment,” she said.
In late March, City Limits reported that at least 40 families had returned to 333 East 181st Street and all apartments were open except for the 14 units on the third floor, where the fire originated.
Together with her BronxWorks case manager, Cunningham searched for new housing for her and her 24-year-old daughter to replace their $1,621 two-bedroom apartment. Together, their incomes were too high to benefit from a housing voucher. But since her daughter qualified for a voucher on her own, Cunningham decided it was best for them to seek separate locations. Her daughter was able to get a one-bedroom apartment with a Section 8 housing voucher.
“They gave him the voucher. She got her furniture back. She is good,” she said.
In addition to housing vouchers for people below a certain income, cash assistance and storage payments, the city also covered furniture costs for families moving into new apartments.
Cunningham, however, was not eligible for a voucher because she was making too much money as a city employee with a base salary of $54,000 which was increased to $104,000 through overtime. in 2021.
The city worker found the permanent housing options available to her to be too expensive – more than $1,900 for a bedroom – and in neighborhoods she deemed too dangerous for someone working the city. night shift.
“I’m not going to take anything because I just wasn’t into anything,” she said.
In May, Cunningham says she told her BronxWorks social worker she was looking to buy a house instead. “Because [of] whatever they offered, I told him it would be better because the rents are too high. And me at my age, I can’t see myself paying anyone $2,000 for an apartment when it could be a mortgage.
A City Hall spokesperson told THE CITY in an email that Cunningham opted to stop working with the city after telling her case manager she was looking for a property to buy in the north of the city instead. ‘State. The spokesperson added that by May, each family would have been offered the option of returning to their renovated apartment, a new apartment in the building or placement in affordable housing elsewhere.
“A hotel room is by no means an appropriate place to live long-term, which is why our administration is proud to have worked together with all the families affected by the Twin Parks fire to help them. to return to their repaired homes or found more than 95 families new affordable apartments as quickly as possible,” said City Hall spokeswoman Kayla Mamelak. “No one has been or will be deported with nowhere to go, but this job cannot be done alone. We need everyone involved to work in partnership with the city and their case managers to help find the right placement solution. »
The majority of families who have been successfully relocated to new apartments are receiving housing vouchers and have been placed in La Central, a new rental community in the South Bronx, according to a City Hall spokesperson.
“Trying to find a home right now”
Cunningham has been staying with a friend in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx since leaving her hotel, sleeping on a sofa bed. She still works the night shift at the Harlem Hospital, working overtime to make up for the paid time off she took from Jan. 9 to March 31.
While the town paid to store Cunninham’s belongings after she left the Twin Parks apartment, she has had to start paying the $321 rate since she was forced out of the hotel.
“I’m trying to find a house right now,” she says. “I was ready to retire next year. [Now] I must have a roof over my head.
Cunningham now pays her friend around $500 in rent and although she says she is grateful and enjoyed living with her and having home cooked meals like ribs with mac and cheese and spinach, Cunningham missed living with his daughter.
Before the fire, Cunningham and her daughter were very close but she says the months apart have taken a toll on their relationship.
“It’s so different. It hurts. Just the things she says now. I can’t even explain it,” Cunningham said, choking on her words as she spoke with THE CITY at First Union Baptist Church, where she has been a congregational member for 24 years and is currently a trustee. “It’s been a real strain.”
But after seeing her daughter at a baby shower the day before, Cunningham said, she felt a burst of optimism after a difficult year.
“Yesterday I saw her [and] she said, ‘Mom, I love you. Kiss Me.’ I was like, okay, maybe we have a chance here,” she said.
As Cunningham continues to survive a stressful ordeal, a city spokesperson said the door remains open.