Sharyn Briller had just sat down to eat a sandwich for lunch on a hot July day when she got a knock at the door. It was a neighbor in the Port Jefferson Station condominium development where she has lived for more than 20 years.
He said her home was on fire as were the three other units in her building.
“Two firemen came in, one on each arm [of mine], and dragged me out,” Briller said. “It was so horrendous. And I went across the street to my neighbor’s and watched my house burn down.”
What Briller did not know was that the worst was still to come. A year after the July 1 fire at the Fox Meadow condominium community, she and her neighbors are still not back in their homes. Their burned out and condemned building has yet to be demolished, let alone rebuilt. Briller and her neighbors say HPM Management, which manages their community and several other Long Island developments, initially promised them an overly optimistic timeline of a rebuild by Christmas 2021 and have not offered a recent update.
Their situation highlights the complexity of owning a condo, which in 2016 accounted for nearly 80,000 units in Long Island’s housing stock, according to a Long Island Index report, a website and online forum that has since become the Newsday editorial page project nextLI.
Despite being owners, the residents have no control over the rebuilding process, but instead must rely on homeowners’ associations and property managers as they continue to pay mortgages, taxes and fees on uninhabitable homes.
A letter from a claims administrator states that $871,998 was paid Jan. 5 from Fox Meadows’ insurance policy to begin the work, although it is not clear how much it will actually cost to rebuild the structure. Representatives of HPM and the Fox Meadow homeowners’ association did not return calls seeking comment.
No demolition permits applied for
Demolition crews arrived on the scene in late March, but two stop-work orders were issued by Brookhaven Town in April because officials said no demolition permits were obtained. A chain-link fence installed by the town rims the charred building.
The town building department has been in touch with the contractor, but no application for a demolition permit has been filed, said Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger.
The blaze was determined to be accidental and caused by an electrical issue, according to a January report from the Brookhaven Town Fire Marshal’s Office. The building was condemned five days after it went up in flames.
Briller, who is retired, said she used up all her insurance funds for rental assistance by February and has since survived on the charity of her friends. She is renting another unit in the Fox Meadow complex, but that means she is responsible for almost $3,000 per month in additional rent and utilities on top of her combined $1,000 mortgage and common charges on the destroyed unit, she said.
Her neighbor, John Pennino, said he exhausted most of his rental assistance on a hotel and is sleeping on a cot in his brother’s Huntington basement. Pennino said it was difficult to find a suitable apartment because leasing agents were asking for a one-year commitment and large fees upfront.
“I can’t see any reason why this is happening if everyone is on the right page,” Pennino said.
Another resident, Bruce Samuels, said his family is renting in Ronkonkoma. He said he has wiped out his savings and has dipped into his retirement account to pay living expenses.
All the condo owners said they continue to pay the mortgage and property taxes on their units as well as condominium common charges ranging between $300 and $500 per month.
Marc Schneider, a managing partner with Schneider Buchel LLP in Garden City, which has represented hundreds of condominium management companies throughout the state, said although obviously frustrating for residents, it’s not uncommon for a condo rebuild to take more than a year to complete.
Schneider noted it is owners’ responsibility to have a personal insurance policy that covers sufficient rental assistance as well as any interior improvements in case of fire. While the condominium complex’s insurance policy is responsible for the rebuild, Schneider said many of the community associations he represents have sought amendments to their governing documents to require owners to carry individual policies.
“It is very important that condominium unit owners obtain their own insurance, even though there may not be a requirement pursuant to the condominium association’s governing documents to do so,” he said.
If insurance funds were not enough to cover the repairs, the condo board could assess all the owners in the community and charge the difference as a common expense, according to Fox Meadow’s bylaw. Such provisions are common in condominium governing documents, Schneider said.
Meanwhile, the residents are still waiting for answers as to when the work can move forward.
State Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) said he sent letters to the property manager in March and again in May asking for updates on the progress. Briller said she has made a complaint to the state Attorney General’s Office.
“When they start to rebuild, I will throw a party for everyone,” Briller said. “I would be so happy.”