Holyoke tenants go to court after partial roof collapse

  • The outside of Western Housing Court in Springfield, where residents of 145 Essex St. in Holyoke appeared Friday to figure out temporary housing after a part of their building's roof collapsed earlier in the week, displacing families in 20 units. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • 145 Essex Street in Holyoke where a top level of bricks fell. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Michael Frank and Peter Besset, employees of Brodrur Campbell Fencing out of Springfield, install a fence around 145 Essex Street in Holyoke where a top level of bricks fell. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/Carol Lollis

  • The scene earlier this week at 145 Essex St. in Holyoke, where a top level of bricks fell from the building’s parapet last Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2020 11:54:25 PM
Modified: 2/14/2020 11:54:12 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Sitting in the hallway of Western Housing Court on Friday, Naomi Cruz had no idea where she and her 3-year-old would be sleeping that night. And the 24-year-old wasn’t the only one in that situation.

Cruz was joined by more than 20 neighbors waiting patiently on the long wooden benches outside the courtroom Friday after a large, decorative section of brick collapsed off the roof of their apartment building at 145 Essex St. in Holyoke on Sunday evening. Nobody was injured, but residents of 20 of the building’s 30 units were evacuated and haven’t been able to return since.

“Some of us can’t go to work, I haven’t been able to go to school,” Cruz said. “We’re putting our whole lives on hold.”

An approximately 30-foot section of the roof’s parapet came crashing down at around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, leaving a large pile of masonry and debris on the sidewalk below. The city’s building department inspected the complex and found that the rest of the parapet and a roof overhang were also in danger of falling. Holyoke Building Commissioner Damian Cote declared the building unsafe and in violation of the state’s building code.

The decision meant that residents shivering out in the cold, their belongings upstairs, were unable to return to their homes. The landlord — Lucjan Hronowski of Windsor Realty LLC — paid for several nights of hotel stays for the tenants, after which many returned to the building Wednesday with no idea where they would stay that night.

Property records show Windsor Realty LLC owns at least five buildings in the city. Hronowski, who is listed as company manager on state corporate filings, did not respond to phone and email messages this week.

When Hronowski arrived at the apartment complex Wednesday, tenants confronted him over their lack of housing and money they had already paid him. Emotions ran high as the crowd expressed frustration. Somebody damaged the landlord’s car, according to Holyoke Police Lt. Jim Albert, who said police arrested one person for disorderly conduct.

That night, the city opened up the War Memorial Building as a resource center for the tenants, and the American Red Cross gave residents cards to pay for several more nights of hotel lodging.

But as they sat in Housing Court on Friday morning, many tenants were back to the same situation — having nowhere to sleep that night, and waiting for what comes next.

Betty Medina Lichtenstein, the executive director of the Holyoke nonprofit Enlace de Familias, was on hand to advocate for the tenants in court. She had helped the group attend the hearing Friday, and had previously ensured that those who wanted to file a complaint filled out the proper paperwork.

Medina gathered the group together in the crowded hallway outside the Springfield courtroom, relaying information in Spanish and making sure everyone knew what was going on. Eventually, the group was led into a courtroom, where Medina, acting Holyoke City Solicitor Crystal Barnes and attorney Dennis Powers, who was representing the landlord, appeared before Judge Dina Fein.

Powers said Hronowski agreed to pay for hotel stays for the tenants through Tuesday, when the parties may be back before the court again. Powers said Hronowski thinks he will need 30 days to make repairs needed to lift the building’s condemnation order.

“I don’t know how long my client can afford to house the tenants,” he said.

There were more than 20 tenants at the hearing. Medina said that others were unable to come because of disabilities or other situations. And for those who decided to stay with family after the collapse, Medina said she worried that those family members may be at risk of eviction as a result.

Fein assured the tenants that not taking the landlord up on his offer of housing didn’t preclude them from receiving that assistance later. And Fein said the court would not overlook the question of who might be owed money, even if the residents found other permanent housing in the meantime.

The city also appeared in court Friday in an effort to get Hronowski to repair the building, separate from the tenants looking for housing.

Barnes said that the city had already approached an outside contractor who was open to making repairs to the building under “limited receivership.” That would mean that the contractor would take over repairing the building, and then would place a lien on the building to recoup their costs.

That is a last resort, Barnes told the Gazette. At the moment, the owner is being responsive and has been getting estimates for repairs to be made, she said. But it is an option the city has if things don’t go “according to plan on Tuesday,” she told the judge.

Tenants will also have to wait until Tuesday for more information. Fein said that she understands the residents, landlord and city all want an answer to how this situation will end.

“None of us is going to get that today,” she said. “As hard as it is for everybody, I think we all need to take this one step at a time.”

The wait will be challenging for many residents, though. Cruz, the 24-year-old tenant, said many have already paid rent for the month and do not have the personal resources for hotel stays, security deposits or first and last month’s rent for a new apartment. Some have had to miss work amid the chaos, and Cruz said she’s worried she won’t be able to graduate on time after missing classes to deal with the crisis.

“It’s frustrating to say the least,” she said. “I just want something to be done.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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