The eight children in Arifa Tirmizi’s household, all of whom were displaced from their Richmond Hill apartment in a six-alarm fire over two months ago, got a high-tech gift last Friday, but the family’s needs go beyond acts of charity.
The children received a donation of laptops to help the family’s recovery, courtesy of Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar (D-Woodhaven) and Zara Realty’s philanthropic arm. The gift was aimed at facilitating the children’s remote learning while their parents seek permanent housing back in their old neighborhood. Tirmizi’s family is the only one of the 17 that were affected by the fire to not have found permanent housing yet.
Three families gathered at Rajkumar’s office to accept the laptops that the newly elected assemblywoman had arranged from the real estate developer. Over two months after the fire, the families continue to experience the lingering effects of home displacement. Two of them told the Chronicle about how their lives continued to be in a state of turmoil.
While Tirmizi expressed her deep gratitude for the laptops, she said they raised bigger problems that her children, ages 11 to 19, faced in the city shelter system. The temporary units in the Bronx the city has provided the family doesn’t have reliable Wi-Fi.
“They’re providing one thing, but the other thing is that they don’t have internet access,” Tirmizi told the Chronicle.
Despite all her family has been through during that period, Tirmizi is remarkably positive. She said that the Dec. 10 fire’s timing during the pandemic had taught her to be humble and positive about what the city had been able to provide.
But at the same time, she can’t deny that it’s been a culture shock for her children to wind up in the Bronx, far from the more “family-oriented” neighborhood they’ve grown up in, which they can navigate on their own to visit friends or the corner deli.
Tirmizi explained that the pandemic had left her and her husband financially strained without jobs. Though she has been requesting vouchers for city-subsidized housing, Housing Preservation and Development has not been able to provide any up to now.
Now the kids are split into two different apartments in the Bronx that are across the street from one another. Though she bought them a device to provide a Wi-Fi network, their school-provided iPads often tell them that the signal is not strong enough.
“They’re still missing out on a lot of things. And the shelter system says — they’re just like shrugging their shoulders,” Tirmizi said.
Arleen Burgols’ family, another displaced by the fire, is making a clear break from New York City after she lost her $2,600 deposit during their search for a new place.
The family, which receives Section 8 housing assistance, put down a deposit on an apartment before they sent in their application to get a voucher for the unit. When it turned out that the apartment didn’t qualify for the subsidy, Burgols said the realtor refused to give back their deposit.
“We’re going down to North Carolina like literally with no funds. We have no other choice because we couldn’t find anything out here,” Burgols said.
Rajkumar said that her office has been keeping close tabs on all the families in the wake of the tragedy in December after turning her campaign office into a drop-off site for gift cards, clothes and food to support the residents.
“[She’s] been keeping us in her mind —even right now, even after a month or two months after the fire, she still remembers us,” said Tirmizi.
Tony Subraj, the vice president of Zara Realty, told the Chronicle that the company had considered providing housing support for the families affected in the fire but ultimately decided on the laptops.
Asked whether Zara was still planning to use its resources as a real estate company to help find a permanent residence for the Tirmizi family, Subraj said that it is “liaising” with HPD to find an arrangement for the family.
Rajkumar’s decision to partner with Zara, a company that was sued by state Attorney General Letitia James for allegedly violating rent stabilization laws and “harassing tenants at Queens apartment buildings,” sparked controversy among housing advocates on social media, even prompting one to show up to the ceremony in protest.
But after the ceremony Friday, Rajkumar doubled down on her decision, saying that it was the right thing to do on behalf of families in need.
“Zara helped the children of Richmond Hill who needed it. So if there are any other people or entities out there who want to help the children, they should contact my office,” Rajkumar told the Chronicle.