Elmhurst, Queens, New York
Here’s a true story of domestic terror and chilling impunity. No names have been changed because there mostly aren’t really any.
It happened on a cold early morning just an hour before sunrise, 6 days before Christmas, a 5-alarm fire engulfed a three family house. The inferno spread so rapaciously that it instantly killed three men as they desperately tried to flee while trapped in their rooms, their only exit was sliding doors by the balcony on the second floor, which were locked. It also torched the three floor house attached to it, making both structures inhabitable.
Before the deadly blaze the house was proficiently and exceedingly habitable. Since the fire was extinguished, a lot of mystery still surrounds this tragedy. Not much is known about the tenants; especially their names which have not been identified, notably the three who perished in the inferno except for their ethnicity. The one tenant who survived the destruction and the deaths, also refused to be identified.
This house had an incredible lengthy record of housing violations going back 4 years with over $200,000 in fines. Mostly in the last two years, the former landlord had repurposed what was once a nice two family house and transformed it into a makeshift boarding house with single room occupations constructing seven rooms on each floor from the basement to the attic. Even the garage wasn’t spared as the original landlord Mumarrawa Mahmood managed to convert it into a rental where the superintendent of the house lived and added more dwellings to it even after repeated visits and fines by the Department Of Buildings.
Whatever fines the original landlord accrued by subdividing the house probably got evened out with the monthly or weekly rents that were provided by dozens of tenants occupying all those SROs; the superintendent of the illegally converted home paid 700 a month (usually supers live rent free in apt. buildings). Now multiply that by about 10 or 20 as was claimed in a complaint by a prospect “tenant” in January this year. One of the last complaints filed to the DOB was by a person who was looking to rent a room and described 60 people occupying the house at once.
Although even with all that non-taxed cash flowing in from this ratchet set up it was still not enough to avoid foreclosure.
When the original landlord decided to finally unload it after gradually gutting it for 4 years, it got purchased by an LLC consisting of the new landlord and a bank from Texas last February. The LLC wasted no time making their presence felt as they attempted to force out the tenants from their SRO’s by shutting off the heat or buying them out after the DOB put a full vacate order at the start of the year.
The final DOB building violation report and full vacate order on the house took place on the morning after it burned down.
The internal dilapidation cited in years of violations from the illegal construction manifested itself as the house burned. The roof that was cited in the DOB’s records easily collapsed during the blaze as the second floor ceiling also dropped on the firefighters while they were extinguishing the inferno.
The day after the fire, the FDNY put up a table down the block from the destroyed house on the pedestrian triangle on Corona Ave and 90th Street, displayed with safety brochures and flyers, even though the investigation of the blaze was not concluded. This gave off a predetermination by the department and also by the city that the fire was the fault of the tenants.
The following day after the table got packed up, FDNY marshals determined that the early morning blaze was deliberately set off by an accelerant substance and security camera footage showed a man walking inside and then coming out of the house in a short amount of time. Now the premature result from what was initially thought as carelessness by tenants has turned into a possible cases of arson and homicide in less than 24 hours.
After concluding criminal intent was involved in the fire, the FDNY drew a warrant for the landlord and owner of the house and with the NYPD, found his residence in Flushing. During a search of his SUV, dogs sniffed out gloves with traces of the accelerant that set off the inferno inside the vehicle. The NYPD confiscated tech devices from the suspect, notably digital recording devices and a portable hard drive. Despite the procurement of this evidence and the apparent motive to evict the residents, the landlord and only suspect, Eric Chen, was not arrested.
Four months have passed since the house burned down and there has been apparently no follow up on this story from local news despite the fact that arson was the cause of the inferno that destroyed this house and incinerated three men alive. Also evident is the utter lack of a follow up and seeming abandonment of the case by city department enforcement despite the debris from the blaze still present on the ground in front of the garage door.
What also remains from this destruction is the still smouldering odor of acrid smoke and flesh. But what also lingers in the ether here is the fact that an act of cold blooded murder was committed with impunity.
And never mind the evidence of arson that was easily found and sourced, what’s clearly evident is the motive. The new owners of the foreclosed house immediately was trying to sell it and it’s clear that they were champing at the bit to unload it because of COVID-19 and before the eviction moratorium was ratified by state and federal law (per Centers of Disease Control). Those that remained, initially suspected and maligned as squatters even by the superintendent who was occupying a room on the first floor, probably refused to leave because of their rights to shelter in place, reasonable considering that Elmhurst was the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic exactly a year ago and they were in their rights to remain in the house. Despite the shutdown and new regulations to protect the public from spreading contagion, the landlord still resorted to cut off the power in the house, but was forced to restore it after the residents made a 311 complaint. As the remaining residents continued to avoid paying rent for months because of the rent moratorium, that must have been the tipping point for the LLC owners of the house.
Another mystery is how none of the footage has been publicly released, which reportedly shows a man rushing in and out of the house and a sudden burst of flames by the front door and garage. Being that we live in an age of viral video mayhem and how the NYPD usually displays security cam footage on their own twitter, it’s amazing how this one didn’t warrant the attention it would have surely got, especially from the 24/7 streaming news sites and local news stations. Something as extreme as arson and murder should have warranted national attention as well.
de Blasio’s Department Of Buildings insouciance is all over this too, for there hasn’t been a single update of violations since the murderous inferno despite the mess laying outside for passerby to see and for neighbors to tolerate.
What’s not a mystery is the way this house was run and assembled in the 2 years under the previous owner; as a boarding house for hundreds of the housing insecure because of the criminally insufficient lack of affordable housing in NYC, which was undermined by the Housing for Preservation and Development Department’s prioritizing building public housing for the upper middle class. (Although it’s also quite possible that this charred house was repurposed as a hotel also for Airbnb).
This house must have been a sanctuary for the victims of this city’s perpetual housing crisis (especially in two terms under Mayor de Blasio), especially those working check to check and undocumented immigrants, essential workers mostly doing gig jobs delivering food or driving for apps and working construction building towers they will never afford to live in.
Meanwhile, the suspect (or suspects considering that two other tenants that were still living there weren’t home at the time when the blaze was set off) is still at large and nothing has been updated concerning the LLC that bought the house or the landlord who was found with the incriminating evidence in his car. But the record of the homicidal zeal to get rid of the holdout residents of the Elmhurst Horror is documented in the few stories that remain about this act of literal domestic terror, which resembles in essence the gangster hit jobs in iconic scenes from movies like the Untouchables and Goodfellas.
Moments before his home caught fire on Dec. 19, the man, who asked not to be identified, was jolted awake by a strange noise — and then thrown into darkness.The first floor tenant, who had been paying about $700 a month rent, said he and about half a dozen others living in the Elmhurst home had struggled with new landlords in recent months, claiming they wanted them out of the building — even at one point turning off the utilities.
It was like the sound of a gas burner before it ignites, he recalled.
Because of months of collective indifference from the accounted and unaccounted authorities, the latter being our elected officials who have not even bothered to acknowledge this monstrous tragedy, and also from the absentee LLC owners of this destroyed home, the inevitability of another craven and wanton act will assuredly manifest. And they don’t even have to ditch the evidence or clean up after themselves.
If anything that confirms the allegory that evictions are violence, look no further than this homicidal pyre of the housing insecure and the ruin that still remains in plain sight and living color. And the city’s complicity in allowing this site and this black market “affordable housing” system to fester is the biggest horror of them all.