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NYC high-rise fire displaces hundreds. How do they find affordable housing?


The fire that killed 17 people in a Bronx high-rise earlier this week has also displaced hundreds of residents from the building. Officials have promised that tenants who want to move will get vouchers to live somewhere else. But as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, finding affordable housing in New York City is hardly a simple task.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: For the residents who survived Sunday's fire, there's the pain of losing friends and neighbors and the awful memories of smoke-filled stairwells that acted like chimneys. There's also the question of where to go now.

KAREN DEJESUS: Looks like a war zone on the third floor. My wall is broken. My door is down.

WAMSLEY: Karen Dejesus lives on the building's third floor, two doors down from where the fire started. She was briefly allowed to go back to her apartment on Monday. Like many residents of the building, called Twin Parks North West, she and her family are now in temporary housing.

DEJESUS: The Red Cross was here. And they placed us into a hotel. But we're just here to wait and see what's going to happen.

WAMSLEY: For those whose homes are uninhabitable, New York City and the Red Cross are currently providing hotel rooms. Other residents are staying in hotel rooms paid for by the building's owner. But a big question is on the horizon for residents, to return to the building or move? When Twin Parks North West opened in the early 1970s, it was considered a model of subsidized affordable housing. The building is now home to many immigrants. Eleven of those who died in the fire were from Gambia in West Africa. Three-quarters of the building's households are on Section 8 vouchers, the federal program that subsidizes housing for very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled. Most of those vouchers had been tied to units in the building, which is supervised by the state of New York. The residents will now be able to take their vouchers elsewhere, Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin said this week.


BRIAN BENJAMIN: We will be working with the developers and those on the ground to make sure that everyone has adequate housing as soon as possible if they cannot come back to the building.

WAMSLEY: Judith Goldiner is an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which is helping residents assess their options.

JUDITH GOLDINER: Some people may want to go back. A lot of people likely are going to want to move.

WAMSLEY: She says in New York, as elsewhere, far more people qualify for Section 8 vouchers than receive them. And getting a voucher doesn't mean it's easy to find a place to live.

GOLDINER: You have to go out and find a landlord who is willing to take your voucher, whose apartment fits your family size, and also whose apartment is going to pass what we call housing quality standards. And that can be pretty difficult in New York City.

WAMSLEY: Goldiner suggests the building's owners, known as Bronx Park Phase III, should play a major role in finding apartments for the Twin Parks residents who want them.

GOLDINER: This is a very large, affordable housing, for-profit consortium. They have lots of other apartments. And it seems to us that they should be helping people find other places if that's what people want to do.

WAMSLEY: Neither the building's owners nor New York state made anyone available for an interview for this story. But the owners said in a statement to NPR that they are, quote, "working to find more permanent housing solutions for those who decide not to return." And New York state said in a statement that it will work to accommodate residents with and without vouchers. Goldiner said she was surprised by the fire at Twin Parks, a building that's fairly new by New York City standards. It's just the sort of building where Legal Aid tries to get its clients into.

GOLDINER: A building where they're going to be able to afford the rent, where the conditions are pretty good, where they're not going to be overcrowded. Most of the people in the building had been there a really long time.

WAMSLEY: It makes the situation even more tragic, she says.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.


Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.