The first floor apartment of the Webster Avenue apartment building remains uninhabitable after a 25-foot boulder suddenly crashed through a rear bedroom one night in January, narrowly missing two sleeping boys.
“It shook the whole building,” said Nelly Torres, a second floor tenant.
The retaining wall built in front of a large rock outcropping on the hill behind the apartment building gave way, creating a rock slide. The apartment can't be repaired until the wall is restored, but who will make the repairs is unclear.
“We don’t know,” said Joseph Boines, the building landlord. “That’s what we are trying to debate, they say Clay Avenue is responsible for it, but who knows?”
“The owner, as everybody else, is kind of confused as to whose responsibility it is to do this,” said Bakary Camara, a member of the Al Tawba Mosque next door to the Webster Avenue apartment building. Camara is considering buying the building, but wants to know how repairs will be made first.
“Because the homeowners insurance would not want to touch this,” he said. “And now they are trying to see whether or not the city can assist.”
The city says it is not just the owners of the Webster Avenue buildings that are responsible, but also homeowners that reside on Clay Avenue, a street that runs parallel to Webster and is on higher ground.
“In 43 years, never has an inspector ever come out to say, ‘There’s a retaining wall and you’re responsible for it.’ We’ve never met with anyone about the wall,” said Trinidell Thomas, who lives on Clay Avenue with her husband, Paul.
From the back of their house, they can barely see where the boulder crashed into the Webster Avenue apartment building below. And they can’t see the retaining wall at all. The first time the Thomases even knew about the wall was when they received a partial vacate order from the Department of Buildings warning another collapse was possible.
The department cited them and 10 other homeowners along Clay Avenue, ordering that they hire a geotechnical engineer to assess the wall and make recommendations for repairs.
But Trinidell Thomas wonders whether the Clay Avenue homeowners are really responsible.
“We have no idea, we have no idea who this property belongs to. Beyond the catwalk, we are not certain,” she said, referring to the enclosed narrow extension attached to the back of her home.
Scott Kohanowski is a pro-bono lawyer with the City Bar Justice Center. He’s helping the homeowners form an association and says many of the residents on Clay Avenue have lived there for decades.
“But living in that property for so many years and not even knowing that [the wall] was there, it is kind of insane to then hold these property owners responsible for this. We’re talking hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars to repair this wall,” Kohanowski explained.
“This is generations and generations of government neglect in communities of color,” said Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who is also helping the residents. “When they purchased their homes, they weren’t told about a retaining wall, it’s not on their deed, these are things you were not told so it is not their fault that they were never made aware all these years,” she explained.
For now, the Buildings Department is giving the homeowners time, but warns they could be fined if they do not fix the wall.
“In order to protect their fellow New Yorkers, owners have a legal responsibility to keep their properties in a safe condition, including maintaining any retaining walls within the bounds of their property,” said Andrew Rudansky, press secretary for the department.
The Thomases and their neighbors fear liens eventually could be slapped on their homes to cover the repairs. They hope Gibson and Kohanowski can secure city funding so they don’t effectively lose their homes in more ways than one.
“Yes, extremely worried. Cause we don’t know when we could have another collapse,” said Trinidell Thomas.