When Yvonne Collery goes home to the East Village apartment she’s lived in for 30 years, her eyes sting. The ceiling in one room is caving in, and there is dust and grit throughout.

Nearly a month on from the explosion that leveled two buildings on Second Avenue, Collery and other residents of a neighboring building say their apartments are still uninhabitable, despite the city declaring them safe to live in.

“Your eyes don’t feel so good. There’s something in there, maybe it’s smoke, I don’t know, but as far as we know they didn’t really test the air in the building, they tested it across the street … It seems like they’re missing the crux of it,” said Collery. Like many of her neighbors, Collery does not feel safe moving back into her apartment, although the city says it’s ready.

City records show that air quality tests, conducted by the Departments of Environmental Protection and Housing Preservation and Development, were done on the sidewalk across the road, not inside the building.

“It's difficult to understand why the vacate order was lifted weeks ahead of the anticipated timeline. The air inside is thick; without a face mask, nausea and headaches set in within half an hour - that's the longest I've been able to stand it,” said resident James Styron, who had lived in the building for just three weeks before the fire.

“We are expected to pay rent for mid-April onward, but the conditions are uninhabitable, regardless of what city officials say. I'd invite any of them to spend the night in one of the south-side apartments, where the worst damage occurred. It might change their perspective,” he said.

Although the city has declared most of their building liveable — vacate orders were lifted on all but five of the apartments over a week ago — many residents have not moved back in because of the damage. Many are relying on friends and family to help them out while they sort through the aftermath of the disaster.

City official weighs in

Council Member Rosie Mendez, who represents the East Village, told Metro she attended a meeting on Friday with representatives of the city department of health, HPD, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Mayor’s office of community affairs, along with other elected representatives.

“We asked about the air quality in the apartments and they talked us through what samplings they do … They did not find any danger or anything to show that there was asbestos and they say they do not do testing in the buildings and that certainly there was no need, especially when the buildings on the outside was not showing that there was asbestos,” she said.

One tenant, Karen Bienert, has been back to her apartment for just half an hour at a time to begin cleaning up, although the according to the city her apartment is habitable.

“Honestly it stays with you. I had a sore throat and headache and nausea for the rest of the day. I’m not like an overly fussy person but it stays with you and it’s like gosh if that’s the effect after only having been in there for 30 minutes at a time what would it be like to actually spend the night there,” she said.

Stephanie Rudolph, an experienced lawyer with the Urban Justice Center, is familiar with the situation though she is not representing the tenants at 125 Second Avenue. She said in her experience there are no consistent standards for air quality testing after disasters like this one.

“We sometimes recommend that tenants get their own air quality testing,” said Rudolph,

“Air quality testing is really not standardised … even if you get a reputable agency or company to test the air quality, how do you enforce it?” said Rudolph, adding that there is no clear violation of the housing code that relates to air quality.

Local advocates speak out

GO LES, a community advocacy organization based in the area, has been working with tenants to get a more thorough inspection from the city.

According to their notes, residents in the building are dealing with conditions like rampant water damage, broken windows and in some cases cracks in the walls.

“The conditions are pretty bad, the odor, the horrible stench to the broken windows and dust and debris and an assortment of items,” said Wasim Lone, Director of Housing Services for GO LES.

Lone said GO LES is assisting tenants to form an association and has submitted their notes to HPD to try to facilitate a walk through of the building by HPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Code Enforcement, Vito Mustaciuolo.

“Government agencies are hard to track down and get efficient expeditious responses from… but we are working on it,” he said, adding that he expected the walk-through to happen this week.

Tenants are also worried that, apart from the general air quality and the residue in their apartments, some of the older apartments had layers of lead paint that could have released toxic substances into the air they are breathing.

But they say the city department of health told them lead poisoning would only be a concern in apartments with children under six years old.

The department of Housing Preservation and Development told Metro in a statement, “125 2nd Avenue has no history of lead paint hazard violations with HPD. There are no past closed violations and no current open violations for lead paint. Air quality monitoring was performed by HPD (via a contractor) as well as by DEP at the site during the duration of the recovery and demolition processes. All tests for airborne asbestos were negative.”

The departments of health and environmental protection did not respond to requests for comment.

While each tenant’s situation is different, they say their landlord has been cooperative and responsive when they have problems - but their main concern are the city’s testing standards and the quick removal of the vacate orders.

The building’s landlord, Alex Bohdanowycz, said he trusts the city to lift vacate orders appropriately.

“If HPD cleared it, then they’re alright,” he said, adding that only two of the apartments actually had the fire inside them, and four have long-term vacate orders on them.

“If the city wants people to come back into the apartments I’m not going to blame the city for that … Everybody’s just going through a stressful time,” he said.

Mendez said HPD told her they would consider testing for lead if residents with young children asked for them, but also defended the decision to lift the vacate orders on some apartments.

“They said that they [tenants] could call the people that we met with, particularly we had someone there from the department of health, and that they could go through a series of questions and that if there was a need for an investigation they would go there,” she said.

Mendez also said department representatives said they would be willing to go along to a community meeting to answer residents’ questions.

HPD told Metro in their statement, “The building has the majority of its services restored including: running water, heat and hot water, and electricity. The cooking gas service has yet to be restored. The apartments that had vacate orders lifted and were able to be reoccupied were in a safe and habitable condition. There are still five (5) apartments under vacate orders due to fire and water damage.”

Bohdanowycz said he’s not sure when gas will be restored, or when the repairs on the building - both inside and outside - will be finished.

Five buildings in total were significantly damaged in last month’s explosion, included three which are being demolished. The cause of the explosion is still being investigated but may be related to a gas leak in one of the buildings across the street from 125 Second Ave.