November 8, 1981 New York Times

HOBOKEN FOR MOST people who live on the clean, tree-lined streets of Hoboken's brownstone revival neighborhoods, life is comfortable. The homes are well kept and an air of a community is on the rise.

But for many residents of the city's less-fashionable tenements, fear, not comfort, is their constant companion. Standing outside the five-story tenement in which she lives, Brigita Rodriguez said: ''I have three children, and I'm afraid for them. Me and my husband, I don't care so much, but our children -they're afraid.'' And with good reason. On Oct. 24, the building next door, at 1202 12th Street, caught fire at 4 A.M. Within two hours, 11 of its 21 tenants, including seven children who once played with Mrs. Rodriguez's youngsters, were dead.

That blaze was the second fatal fire here in three weeks. The first, in the early hours of Columbus Day, killed two brothers 7 and 2 years old.

Investigators have attributed both fires to arson. The scope of the Oct. 24 fire has been eclipsed here only by a tenement blaze that shocked this city on Jan. 20, 1979, when 21 persons died.

The most recent fires have been a reminder of Hoboken's history of arson. Since March 1978, 41 persons, including 30 children, have died in arson-related fires. To date, no one has been convicted.

''People are very frightened. They're still in mourning now, but the fear will return soon,'' said Sister Norberta of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, who has organized Por La Gente (For the People), a tenants' group formed to fight arson.

Despite their fears, Sister Norberta said that most of the residents, even those who have survived the fires, will continue to live in the same tenements because there is no affordable housing elsewhere.

Hoboken's vacancy rate is generally 1 percent or less, according to city officials. Many in the tenants' group, including Sister Norberta, maintain that the spiraling ''gentrification'' movement here, an upgrading of housing by more-affluent people, is a major cause for many of the successful and unsuccessful arson attempts. Insurance money is coupled with the enormous profit potential in apartment rehabilitations and renovations, they say.

''Is this the price we have to pay for renaissance?'' asked Sister Norberta, who said that many deteriorating tenements were ''standing in the way'' of the gentrification movement.

Others concerned with Hoboken's problem, and arson in general, say that the tenants' claims could be valid in certain situations. However, they contend that gentrification is only one factor that must be considered among those relating to arson.

Insurance companies review changing patterns of development within a city, vacancy rates, rent control, the conditions of a building and a landlord's financial situation in all arson investigations, according to the American Insurers Alliance, a trade association representing more than 100 insurance companies nationwide.

Despite all these factors, Joseph Cucci, Alliance vice president, said that many landlords who might be considered bad insurance risks were still able to obtain fire insurance in New Jersey. A statemandated insurance pool for property owners - it is similar in concept to the automobile insurance pool - is the reason, he explained.

''Conceivably,'' Mr. Cucci went on, ''you could get insurance, set a torch to a building five days later and still apply for another insurance policy.''

If the prevention of arson is difficult, the arson conviction rate is almost nil. Nationwide, the rate is less than 1 percent, according to a 1980 Department of Justice survey on arson in urban centers. The survey also attributed to arson at least 1,000 deaths and property damage amounting to $1.5 billion.

Mayor Steve Cappiello acknowledges that Hoboken has a ''very serious'' arson problem. It is a city in transition, he said, with wide extremes in housing and styles of living that are not easily reconciled.

The Mayor conceded that he was ''not happy'' with all aspects of the city's much-heralded renaissance. He says that many longtime residents have left because of the lure of high profits for their homes or prohibitively high rental prices. The prices for many of this city's apartments and homes, he asserted, are ''overrated.''

Even so, Mr. Cappiello said he did not believe the majority of fires here represented arson for profit. Deputy Fire Chief Edward McDonald agrees.

''Sometimes, they're just started by mischievous kids,'' Chief McDonald said. ''A lot of times they're just playing, but people still die.''

He noted that the January 1979 fire that killed 21 persons here was believed to have been set by a child who was among the victims. The Federal arson study supported the contentions of Mayor Cappiello and Chief McDonald. It showed that only 14 percent of all arson had a profit motive, that revenge, spite and vandalism accounted for the other 86 percent and that juveniles were responsible for 40 percent of all arson in 1980.

Chief McDonald maintained that absentee landlords and deteriorating buildings were the major problems here. Whatever anger tenants might feel toward neglectful landlords, he said, the tenants must still exercise greater caution to prevent fires.

''I've seen open wood fires on gas stoves when there is no heat,'' Chief McDonald said. ''I feel sympathy for the tenants, but they don't realize the danger they're putting themselves in - and putting others in.''

According to the majority of tenants, their greatest danger lurks outside, not inside, their buildings. Only last May, the building that burned at 1202 12th Street last month was set afire, and bottles filled with gasoline were found inside the hallway before they exploded. The tenants of that building suspect that the landlord may be a target for revenge, noting that another apartment house owned by the same person has had three arson attacks this year.

To fight what they call their arson war, members of Por La Gente are stationing guards on rooftops to watch for arsonists. Other tenants have begun sleeping at the homes of friends or relatives.

''If someone sets out to burn a building, we can stave them off, but we cannot stop them,'' said Sister Norberta. ''And that's no victory, I can assure you. With certain landlords, if they cannot get people out one way or another, fire might be a solution.''

After the recent fires, city officials intensified inspections for fire-prevention and Building Code violations. Also, the City Council is pushing for an ordinance requiring smoke detectors in all multifamily dwellings with four or more housing units.

The state has a similar regulation for multiple-dwelling units, but local officials said that the law lacked teeth and there was not sufficient manpower to enforce it. Despite the state law, there were no smoke detectors in either of the buildings that burned here last month.

With all the investigations and studies on arson, officials are still at a loss on how to stop it or apprehend those responsible for it. While he searches for answers, Chief McDonald said, he still finds it hard to believe people would risk the lives of others merely to collect insurance money.

''If they're going to do it,''he declared,''  they should do it at a time when people are not asleep. At 4 o'clock in the morning, even the insomniacs are in bed.''

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