A devastating house fire on Nov. 29 that left several families homeless united the Great Neck peninsula with a strong showing of support for the victims. The fire destroyed the single-family dwelling at 36 Brokaw Lane in the Village of Great Neck, which is located near North High School.
All 13 of the occupants were able to safely escape unharmed. However, virtually all of their personal possessions and furnishings in the residence were destroyed by smoke, fire or water. The Alert Fire Company successfully contained the fire and prevented further property damage to neighboring homes.
The dramatic news immediately drew attention the next day on Facebook, in the always active—and occasionally controversial—Great Neck Mommies group. Since eight of the fire victims were children attending public schools in the district, there was an outpouring of support from concerned parents and others in the community.
A GoFundMe online fundraising page initiated by the Great Neck United Parent-Teacher Council (UPTC) and Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) raised nearly $40,000 within a few days. Most of the donors were neighbors, store owners and school teachers in the immediate community. According to a statement from Michelle Ahdoot, president of the UPTC, “The GoFundMe campaign link was sent out to public school parents and immediately gained traction and ‘went viral’ community-wide.” Read her thank-you note to the community here.
True to its name, the North Shore Action group also sprang into action and organized a community-wide relief effort. Clothing and shoes in child and adult sizes, mattresses, toys and gift cards are only a few of the hundreds of items collected at donation sites at Great Neck North High School and local churches.
Bertha Del Carpio, director of St. Aloysius Church Outreach, also coordinated with the American Red Cross to provide much-needed emergency relief. Temple Beth-El Brotherhood donated $750 in Best Market gift cards for the victims. Residents of Manhasset and other nearby towns also offered furniture and supplies to the families. Local real-estate agents offered their services pro bono to find new housing.
According to the email request from Veronica Bisek of North Shore Action, “Housing is the #1 critical item right now. Affordable housing is in such short supply in Great Neck. It would be best for the families if their children could stay in the area to continue in school here. Need housing for: a single mother and her teenage son, a family of five (parents, two teens, a 4 year old) and a family of six (parents, teen and three children).”
Residents in Great Neck, including an employer of one of the victims who worked as a nanny and a local teacher, offered temporary housing in their own homes to the victims. Fortunately, one of the families has already secured long-term local housing.
Everfresh, a local kosher supermarket, also stepped up to help the victims of the fire. The business set up $500 store credits for each of the families and invited shoppers to donate more to the accounts. According to Howard Hassam, a manager at the store, the idea to help the families was to give back to the community. He confirmed that the store’s patrons were pleased to help support their neighbors in need. To date, Everfresh shoppers have already donated an additional $740 for the victims, and the business has posted signs encouraging more donations throughout Hanukkah. Hassam stressed that Everfresh
acknowledges that we live in a diverse community, and “it is important for businesses to give back to those in need outside their own bubble.”
Questions About the Illegal Multi-Family Rentals in the Village of Great Neck
Given the large number of families and individuals who were apparently living in the Brokaw Lane residence, the local rumor mill has been in overdrive regarding the cause of the fire and the legality of the house rental.
Alert Fire Company Chief James Neubert confirmed that the fire started due to an electrical issue. The actual cause is currently being investigated by the fire marshal. It is speculated, but has not yet been confirmed, whether the electrical issue was due to the use of a space heater, allegedly because the heating system in the residence was not in use. According to a volunteer who worked directly with the victims, the children were sleeping in their winter coats due to the lack of heat in the residence. This set of circumstances raises concerns about safety issues and whether the house had been properly inspected by the Village of Great Neck.
The next question that arises is the number of occupants and families in the residence and whether multiple rentals in a single-family dwelling are allowable under the current village ordinances. According to Zillow.com, the residence at 36 Brokaw Lane is a Colonial built in 1926, and has 1,927 square feet on two floors, with two bathrooms. The house has central heat and air.
Brokaw Lane is a Residence B district according to the Village Zoning Map, which is available at www.greatneckvillage.org/government/zoning_maps. According to the village code, a multi-family dwelling is “a residence building accommodating three or more families living independently of each other and allowed to do their own cooking on the premises.” (At press time, I was unable to verify with the mayor’s office whether rental to more than one family was actually permitted at 36 Brokaw.)
I spoke at length to Dr. Sharona Hakimi, the legal owner of the residence that was destroyed by the fire. According to Hakimi, she signed a lease for the premises five years ago, renting the residence to one family with children. The lease expired in 2013 and was never renewed. She has been trying to evict the tenant for more than a year, including during the last court appearance in District Court in October.
She has not collected any rent on the property for many months and believes that the first tenant rented out the house to a number of subtenants without her authorization. Hakimi has reached out to the village, and even tried to sell the house. However, since prospective buyers could not gain access to the inside, her efforts to sell were in vain.
“I have tried everything to get rid of this tenant, and I don’t know what else to do,” said Hakimi. “I spoke to Mayor Bral last month and he assured me that he was aware of the situation and was taking steps to address it in conformance with village laws.”
Based on comments posted online, it seems as though a number of residents in the Village of Great Neck have serious concerns about other illegal multiple-family dwellings.
“There should be only one family living in the house,” said an online commenter. “The government in the Village of Great Neck had received complaints from neighbors that there were multiple families living in a one-family house, yet the village claimed there is nothing it could do. If there were eight children in the schools, with various different last names, it was a red flag that there were illegal tenants in the house. The Great Neck schools spend approximately $20,000 per year per student. That means this one house was costing taxpayers about $160,000 a year. The authorities share blame in this situation, it was a disaster just waiting to happen.”
I contacted Village Mayor Pedram Bral by email to obtain more information about the issue, but did not receive a response from the mayor or his staff. It is anticipated that the issues surrounding the fire, illegal rentals and affordable housing options in Great Neck will be raised at upcoming public meetings.
Concerns of Taxpayers and Public School Parents
Many individuals have expressed concern and increasing frustration about the impact of illegal rentals on school taxes and academic standards in the local public schools.
“I have tremendous sympathy for victims of the fire,” said one woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I was motivated to help the victims and, as a mother, I feel sympathy for the children that were made homeless. However, as a taxpayer with children at JFK elementary school, I am upset that there are many multi-family illegal rentals in Great Neck, and the mayor is not addressing the problem at all. There are landlords taking advantage of low-income tenants, and the living conditions are unsafe. Everyone knows the houses and apartment buildings I am talking about. Why is nothing being done?”
When I inquired what impact this had on education, she replied, “My child’s kindergarten class started out with a certain number of classmates, from diverse backgrounds. By the following year, half of the children weren’t in the school anymore. It creates difficulties in continuing friendships. I am also concerned that so many of the children in short-term rental housing need tremendous resources that affect the rest of the students.”
School District Policy
I reached out to the Great Neck Board of Education to clarify the role of the school district with regard to the issue of illegal housing, and heard back promptly from Dr. Teresa Prendergast, superintendent of Great Neck Public Schools. She directed me to the following statute which is on point:
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) ensures the confidentiality of any personally identifiable information that is contained in education records maintained by school districts. Under FERPA, school districts must get prior written consent from a parent (or eligible student) before releasing any student’s education record to a third party. Schools and districts cannot contact landlords, housing agencies or employers to give or request information about a family’s housing status without prior written consent.
This protection was further strengthened in 2015 by the federal government (under the Every Student Succeeds Act), which added that a student’s housing status is a category of protected information and cannot be disclosed as directory information.
Therefore, based on state and federal law, the school district does not have either the jurisdiction or the responsibility to restrict the education access of children already living in the school district. The issue of illegal housing is not at all within the purview of the school. Rather, it is up to village and county government to take action.
Based on the growing concerns and frustrations of local residents and taxpayers, along with the shocking wake-up call of the recent fire, it seems that affected parties will need to voice their concerns to their elected officials at the village, county and town level.
“The lack of affordable housing in Great Neck inevitably creates conditions of overcrowding and unsafe living environments,” said Laleh Asher Zar, a local resident. “The current circumstances are calling out for long-term solutions.”
One of the Great Neck Mommies on Facebook movingly said, “Next time, we will be writing about how unfortunate it is that four families died due to a fire. They are fortunate that they didn’t die. You can replace things, you can’t replace people.
Jacqueline Harounian is a regular contributor to the Great Neck Record. She and her husband, Maurice, have four children who attended Great Neck Public Schools.