After the Fire: Waiting for Insurance, a Sale, or God

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On 12th St. In Park Slope: One fire, three houses, and the long road to normalcy

Houses 236, 234, and 232 on 12th St. (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

Houses 236, 234, and 232 on 12th St. (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

It all happened very quickly.

At around 12:50 p.m. on Saturday, March 26, Ben Lochansky says he was walking his dog on the sidewalk when Richard Millea emerged from his house at 236 12th Street, told Lochansky that his house was on fire, and asked him to dial 911. At 12:51 p.m. several FDNY units were dispatched to a report of a building fire in apartments two and three of Millea’s house. Lochansky recalls waiting only about a minute and a half before the first fire trucks arrived on the scene.

Lochansky has lived on 12th Street in the row of old houses next to 236 for 40 years and says this was not the first fire he’s witnessed on his block—the most recent being 10 years ago in house 232, just two doors down from 236. He says the houses on this street were built in 1856 and that, with the connected attics and wooden frames, “The fire could have destroyed everything.” And yet, it didn’t.

236 and 234 12th Street. (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

236 and 234 12th Street. (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

With 106 total firefighters on scene, many neighbors commended the work of the fire department on that chilly March day. Even the official Fire Department New York Incident Report praises the units dispatched: “Without the aggressive and expedient attack made by the firefighters there that day, there would have been substantially more loss of property.”

Virginia Matos, a 12th Street resident, watched the scene unfold from the street. “We all just stood here and thanked every fireman who came by,” she said.

Neighbors say that brothers Donald and Richard Millea grew up on 12th Street before inheriting 236 from their parents years ago. Donald Millea, the older of the two elderly brothers, was found  on the first floor of the building when the fire started and was removed by firefighters. He was hospitalized for a few hours that day, along with one firefighter, for minor smoke-related injuries. The total incident lasted just under three and a half hours and resulted in three displaced families and severe damage to buildings 234 and 236.

Directly after the fire, neighbors across the street organized a clothing and money drive for the Millea brothers. Lochansky says he let them stay in his home temporarily. Their next door neighbor to the right, Maritza Aguilar, was forced to vacate her home. The resident who lives two doors to the right from the Millea brothers at 232, who wishes to remain anonymous, was displaced with his eighty-year-old mother and hopes to be back in his house by December.  For the past six months, these three townhouses have existed side-by-side and charred, united only by a shared emptiness. The owners of each house have grappled with the aftermath of the fire in radically different ways.

The back of houses 236 (right) and 234 (left). (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

The back of houses 236 (right) and 234 (left). (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

Neighbors say the Millea brothers eventually relocated to a hotel on 13th Street before moving into an apartment on 11th Street, where they now reside. According to public documents, Richard Millea, who could not be reached for comment, officially sold his burned townhouse for $1,150,000 in August. The anonymous, displaced neighbor two doors down at 232 speculates that the investor will pay for all repairs before reselling on Park Slope’s red hot housing market, where the median owner-occupied unit value is $894,095, according to government census data. Popular homebuyer’s websites like Trulia and Zillow cite an 11.5 percent increase in home value in Park Slope over the past year.

That Richard Millea was able to make a nearly $1.2 million profit off of a severely damaged building is not an altogether surprising modern Park Slope housing narrative to neighboring property owners. Maureen Redding, a resident four doors down at 228, says her parents bought her home 35 years ago for $26,000. Today, Redding thinks it would have a value of over one million dollars—if they were interested in selling. And while Aguilar, owner of the white house to the right of the fire, could likely sell her home for a pretty sum, there is no indication that she is interested in doing so.

Redding, who keeps Aguilar’s mail and then hands it off to her once a week when Aguilar stops by to visit and pick it up, says she doesn’t think her neighbor has any intentions of selling townhouse 234. As Redding lists off the longtime residents on 12th Street, she names a number of people who have lived there for 30, 40, even 50 years. With so much invested in a single place, the decision to move might not be as clear-cut as it seems to outsiders looking in. “She’s poured her blood, sweat, and tears into making her home,” Redding says, suggesting that Aguilar’s longtime connection to her neighborhood runs deep, and is something money can’t buy—not even for $1 million. In the meantime, Aguilar, who could not be reached for comment, is  living with family in Queens. The last time Aguilar stopped by the neighborhood to pick up her mail, Redding remembers her describing the fate of her home as something that “is in God’s hands.”

As the fall air turns crisper and the days grow shorter, each of the three buildings is changing in its own way.  Building 236—formerly owned and occupied by the Millea brothers—is in the process of being gutted, renovated, and eventually, probably resold. The interior at Aguilar’s 234 is likely growing all kinds of mold after being boarded up for over six months in the summer heat, according to Tom Modafferi, vice president of Flag Enterprises, a mold remediation company. And 232’s renovations, covered by good insurance, are nearing completion, but 232’s owner is wondering when Aguilar plans to move forward with her renovations. While the Millea brothers were saved by a surge of demand in Park Slope real estate, and while 232’s owner was saved by good insurance, it appears as though Aguilar is waiting to be saved by something she can’t yet see.

236 (right) and 234 (left). (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

236 (right) and 234 (left). (Hannah Long-Higgins/The Brooklyn Ink)

And as for the rest of the block—Lochansky says that “most of the neighbors have been very supportive.” He half-smiles as he recalls several neighborhood kids on the day of the fire. “They were more concerned about my dog, Mica, than they were about me.”

 

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