3 Squatters Dead in Fire at Abandoned Queens House, Officials Say

For years, residents in Queens had been concerned about an abandoned house in their neighborhood, telling officials the property was unsafe and had become a home for squatters.

Late Thursday, their fears were realized, after a fire ripped through the building in the St. Albans neighborhood, killing three men believed to be squatting there, police and fire officials said.

“That house was boarded up for a while,” said Assistant Chief Joseph Jardin of the Fire Department. “So I can only assume that they were living there as squatters.”

More than 100 firefighters were called to fight the blaze, which started just before midnight in the house’s basement.

While working to bring the fire under control, firefighters found all three men unconscious and unresponsive. The victims, who Chief Jardin said were between 35 and 40 years old, were pronounced dead at the scene. They have not yet been identified.

Four firefighters also suffered minor injuries, including one who fell through the house’s first floor into the basement, officials said.

The fire and a series of deaths of homeless people brought renewed attention to the worsening homelessness crisis in New York City, which has led the city to increase efforts to identify people living on the streets and steer them to shelters.

Barbra Thomas, 45, a subway station supervisor who lives in the area, said that homelessness in St. Albans had become a bigger problem over the past two years, but that she did not consider these men a nuisance.

Ms. Thomas said that she and other neighbors would regularly see the men outside on the street smoking cigarettes and eating dinner.

“If this didn’t happen, you wouldn’t have known they were in there,” Ms. Thomas said of the fire. “They say hi, you say hi. It’s not a drug house. They go in cleareyed, and they come out a little inebriated.”

Officials had received complaints about the two-story house, at 110-51 Farmers Boulevard, for years, according to public records.

In 2008, city building inspectors found that the home had been illegally subdivided into several apartments. The next year, inspectors again found illegal apartments, including in the cellar.

Illegal conversions, especially of basements, are an open secret in Queens, where makeshift boardinghouses provide tens of thousands of people with cheap housing.

There is no estimate of how many exist, but eight areas in Queens are consistently among the top 10 in the entire city with the most complaints for illegal home conversions.

The house’s previous owner, Anwar Hossein, said he bought it in 2004, believing it would be a good investment for his family as a rental property. But he was saddled with nonpaying tenants, he said, and then later learned that the building was actually a one-family home that could not be subdivided.

By 2010, Mr. Hossein said, he had no rental income. He had also been forced to close his small convenience store after losing his lease.

“I couldn’t afford the mortgage,” he said, adding that he later lost the home in foreclosure. “After 2010, I would never go over there.”

Harun Islam, the current owner of the house, said he bought the property in 2014. He said that he had tried to make sure there was no access into the abandoned house, but that squatters have always been an issue.

“There were strangers going in and out when we were not there,” he said. “I could not control it.”

City officials found that the building had been abandoned and taken over by squatters by 2016, according to building records. That same year, the Fire Department requested the vacant house be boarded up, records show.

As late as 2017, an inspector again cited the property as abandoned yet accessible to squatters.

Chief Jardin said on Friday morning that the utility Con Edison had not supplied electricity to the building in approximately two years.

Mr. Islam said the home was sealed off with concrete blocks and boarded up. When he last visited about two or three weeks ago, he said, he did not see anyone present.

“I don’t know how these people entered the house,” he said. “We had no idea.”

Neighbors interviewed on Friday said they did not know the names of the men. Outreach workers often lament the difficulty of cajoling a name out of people living on the street and fringes of New York, where a person’s name is sometimes his or her only possession.

After four men were killed in a brutal, random murder in Chinatown last month, it took nearly two weeks for police to confirm the identity of one of the men, Florencio Moran. Last month, investigators also had trouble identifying a man whose badly decomposed body was found in a manhole at Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

On Friday morning, the police and Fire Department inspectors were still at the scene of the fire, where the smell of smoke lingered in the air and charred furniture was piled up next to the entryway. The cause of the fire was still under investigation, a Fire Department spokesman said.

Neighbors in St. Albans, a middle-class neighborhood, said the house had been a regular stopover for homeless people and squatters for quite some time.

“For years, it’s just been in and out, in and out,” Sulaiman Lamont, 52, said.

Linda Dey, who has lived adjacent to the burned home for 26 years, said that she had complained to city officials “several times” that the squatters next door were selling drugs.

On Thursday night, Ms. Dey had her son call 911 when they began to smell smoke.

As she and her daughter were taking photos of the damage, Ms. Dey said, “We didn’t wish bad, but we knew something bad was going to happen because no one was listening.”

Nikita Stewart contributed reporting.

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