Frustrated tenants lashed out at their landlord and at city officials during an emergency meeting to address a rare disease spread by rats that has killed one neighbor and sickened two others.
The cluster of leptospirosis infections was identified at 750 Grand Concourse in the Bronx. One man who lives in the building was hospitalized with leptospirosis, and two others working at a business on the same block also got sick; one of the workers died.
The health department said it was working with the housing preservation and the building departments to reduce the rat population there.
Masked workers and rat traps were seen at the building during the day Wednesday.
But at the meeting Wednesday night, residents blasted city officials, saying they knew about the problems at the building but failed to act. Rats have long been a problem there, they said, and before the meeting, one tenant showed NBC 4 New York the inside of his apartment where he said rats have eaten through the floor and walls.
"I live on the sixth floor and I smell nothing but dead rat," one resident said at the meeting.
"They sat there and watched these people's lives be endangered," said another.
Roberto Lebron said he was so concerned about his 3-year-old daughter staying in the building that he sent her to live with his mother "until we figure out what's gonna happen."
"We're just looking for affordable, suitable housing where at the end of the day we can come home with peace of mind," said another neighbor, Diane Manning.
One of the people who attended the packed emergency meeting was the mother of the resident who was hospitalized with leptospirosis.
The mayor's office released a statement Wednesday night supporting the tenants and promising action.
"After deploying numerous tools to address persistent problems at this building, we are working with housing advocates and tenants to lodge an action against the landlord to take over operations," the statement read.
The building at 750 Grand Concourse is listed under the city's "dirty dozen" for problem buildings: it has 80 open Department of Housing violations and 15 open Department of Buildings violations. The owner, Ved Parkash, is listed in Public Advocate Letitia James' list of worst landlords of 2016.
Parkash said at the meeting he's owned the building for 30 years and always takes responsibility, and that he was working to correct the violations.
"I work on the problem," he said, adding that exterminators come to the building every month and that he responds to tenants' complaints right away.
"I am responsible if something happens in my building. I don't deny that, but I am here to correct the problem," said Parkash.
City councilman Rafael Salamanca said at the meeting, "The reality is Mr. Parkash is a slumlord. The city needs to take this building away from him."
James told residents at the meeting that the city failed them. She said she plans to introduce additional legislation mandating joint cooperation between the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the DOH on conditions involving rat infestation and rat-borne illnesses.
City officials also said they'll work to get an administrator or overseer put in place at the building during the infestation mitigation.
Health inspectors found active signs of rat infestation and garbage management problems in the building's basement Monday, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Mary T. Bassett said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
Health officials say eradicating the rat problem in an area known as the "rat reservoir" isn't easy but that they've managed cut the number of infected properties by nearly half since 2015.
That's little comfort for residents left to live with the problem.
"I cannot continue to pay rent and look for a new place," said one tenant.
Residents say they want to organize a rent strike. They plan to meet again Friday.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said city officials needs to make more of an effort to mitigate its ongoing rodent problem and that the city's rodent control program "has not been effective."
"It is unfathomable to me that in this day and age, in one of the most expensive cities in the world...the city cannot mitigate the rat problem nor does it have good ideas to do so," he said in a statement Wednesday. "This public health scourge requires a serious, comprehensive and immediate solution.