Sean and Danielle Maher were home with their one-year-old daughter Kiera preparing to take a family trip out of town when Sean noticed a large crack in the basement dry wall of their home at 69-11 58th Road.
Shortly after, the couple heard a loud cracking sound, so Danielle took Kiera from her crib to head outside, and not a moment too soon.
“I grabbed her and before we even made it out of the bedroom I felt the house collapse,” she said. The collapse occurred directly under Kiera’s room.
After staying with their neighbor for several days, the Mahers moved to the Maspeth Holiday Inn Express, the cost of which was covered by their carrier, State Farm Insurance.
At first, the family simply felt fortunate that they had made it out of the collapsed home safely, and that none of their three 21-year-old upstairs tenants were injured.
Several of the Mahers’ neighbors were also evacuated after the incident, though they were allowed to return to their homes the following day.
They assumed that since they have insurance from a national carrier everything would be taken care of, and that the only thing keeping them out of their home would be the time it took to repair it.
But two weeks after they were forced to evacuate, Danielle said a State Farm Insurance adjuster verbally told them that their insurance would not cover the damage.
“He told us that our house was built in the 1930s. He said they built it incorrectly, and the words he used were ‘built to fail,’” Danielle said. “He told us it was bound to happen and it did.”
A State Farm representative denied that this conversation ever happened.
“No one said it was built to fail,” the representative said.
The representative went on to say that while the company could not discuss the details of the claim since it was still “very much an active claim, […] generally, collapse is excluded from coverage in homeowner policies,” adding, “we are working closely with policy holders.”
But the Mahers didn’t feel as if they were being worked closely with, so they hired their own private insurance adjuster, Phil Maltaghati of United Public Adjusters and Appraisers in Ozone Park.
“He’s been so helpful, and seems to be doing a good job based on the fact that [State Farm] let us stay here another week,” Danielle said. “He’s very accommodating, he always picks up the phone or calls us right back, and he helped us as far as getting our estimates. Before that we didn’t really have anything.”
According to the estimate provided by the insurance engineer, the damage to the Maher home will cost roughly $150,000 to repair.
If their insurance denies the Mahers’ claim, the family doesn’t know where they will turn next. Since they had already exhausted their savings account to renovate the house, they won’t be able to afford the repairs on their own.
“We just spent about $100,000 fixing up our house and we were almost done with everything,” Sean said. “The only thing we had left was one door.”
Currently, a makeshift wooden wedge propped against the side opposite the collapse is the only measure in place to mitigate additional damage to the home.
One neighbor, whose rented home lies only a few feet from the collapsed wall, said she fears for the safety of her family, a feeling the Mahers share.
“If you look at the collapsed wall, you can see it’s made of cinder blocks and there’s nothing inside of them,” Danielle said. “In modern buildings they fill the foundation with concrete or reinforce it with steel bars, but back when our house was built, they apparently didn’t do that. Who knows how many houses that were built just like ours could have the same problem.”
Inquiries directed at the Department of Buildings into the construction history of the home turned out to be fruitless, making it difficult to ascertain who originally built the residence. The lack of information also makes it difficult to know if there are more homes in the area that face similar danger.
The Mahers initially believed the damage may be related to a sinkhole in the area, but the Department of Environmental Protection told them that was not the case.
As the Maher family faces the prospect of being pushed out of their hotel room, they have several friends and family members offering them space in their homes, but with a one-year-old daughter, Danielle said couch surfing isn’t going to cut it.
Making matters worse, they will still have to pay into their mortgage even while they’re not living in their house, and they’ll have to do it without the support of rent income from their tenants, who were forced to find other accommodations.
The staff at the Holiday Inn Express told the family that they are welcome to stay on at a discounted rate, but the Mahers said that even the discounted rate would still be too pricey given their circumstances.
The couple said that in a worst-case scenario, they might be forced into foreclosure, which would greatly damage any future prospects of property ownership.
“We’re a young family, and we did everything right: We bought our house, got married and had a kid,” Danielle said. “Now we’re starting to think we should’ve just rented and not contributed to the economy of New York City because it’s not helping us in any way.”
She was visibly frustrated, but still trying to smile through it in the lobby of the Holiday Inn on their last night of guaranteed residency.
The Mahers remain hopeful that their claim will be approved, but in the meantime, they are beginning to consider their alternatives, “Do you know of anyone renting a cheap apartment?” they asked.