“What happens when somebody loses everything?” asks Sylvia Zuniga — not so rhetorically, since it literally happened to her when her home and hair salon, Androgyny House of Design, burned to the ground in October 2015. Zuniga was visiting friends and family in Brazil at the time. “All I had left was my suitcases.” Her beloved Pomeranian dogs, unable to escape because a dog door was latched, died in the fire as well.
Zuniga says that she spent the first six months or so after the disaster “in a state of shock. You think you’re doing well, but you’re not.” At the time the fire occurred, she had already been going through a difficult period following a double mastectomy and then a severe automobile accident that nearly completely severed one of her feet. The foot was reattached and she can now walk, but the removal of a section of ankle bone meant that one of her legs would ever afterward be slightly shorter than the other: a severe blow to a professional hairdresser, who must spend most of her work hours on her feet.
As a result of a pileup of emergencies and extended periods of being unable to work, Zuniga found herself in difficult financial straits that were compounded by the legal aftermath of the fire. Her advice to anyone in a similar situation: “Don’t sign anything on the day of the fire, or the day after. The fire adjustors come; they say they’re going to do everything, but they don’t know what you had in your building.” While still in a traumatized state, Zuniga says, she was pressured to submit detailed lists of everything that she had owned and its value within a short timeframe. Her insurance company then depreciated the value of every item by 75 percent.
Zuniga, who owns the parcel just off the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail at 5 Mulberry Street that served as Androgyny’s once and future home, wanted to rebuild on a smaller, more affordable scale, so she would have less debt to manage, but was told that her insurance policy would only pay for replacement of what had previously existed. She had to go to New York City to find a lawyer experienced in dealing with fire insurance claims to represent her in her battle with her insurance company. She signed a contract specifying that the attorney would be paid one-third of any settlement “plus expenses. I didn’t know what expenses were.” They turned out to be the lawyer’s standard $400-per-hour fee.
“The only thing that saved me was my work, which is my passion. Androgyny is my baby. I put 20 years into it. Thank God I didn’t lose my base.” Her regular clients come from as far away as New Hampshire, she claims, to have their hair done using Zuniga’s unusual “microcarving” techniques, which she compares to “shaving a balloon.” She made all her own super-sharp custom cutting tools, not one of which survived the fire.
When all the legal issues were finally resolved, Zuniga ended up with less money than she needed to rebuild on-site, and construction expenditures are routed through a bank — several changes of banks, in fact. Thanks partly to personal loans from family members, her new building is up and nearing completion, but not quite ready to pass final inspection. She actually took on some of the construction work herself, including installing wood flooring and hooking up plumbing. She still needs to have an exterior staircase to the second-story deck, an interior staircase and a handicapped access ramp built and installed. But she’s still waiting for the paperwork to release the final installment of her insurance claim money.
Meanwhile, the Village of New Paltz has experienced a changeover in personnel in its Building Department. Zuniga says that she had a good rapport with the previous building inspector/code enforcement officer, Bryant Adams, who was willing to extend deadlines as contractors’ reimbursements from the insurance settlement fund were delayed by the banks. New fire safety inspector Cory Wirthmann is taking a more zealous, by-the-book approach, according to Zuniga. He placed a notice on the building forbidding entry, and warned Zuniga that she could be arrested if she occupied it before qualifying for a Certificate of Occupancy.
Nevertheless, she needs to make a living in order to continue paying her bills, so Zuniga has been using the salon space to conduct business for about five weeks now, while living in a tiny converted shed in the rear of the parcel. She doesn’t know how long the current standoff will last, and worries that she will be thrown out before her financial backlog is resolved and her contractors will come back to work for her.
Why not organize a Kickstarter campaign and seek direct help from a community that prides itself on supporting small local businesses? “I’m shy. I would prefer someone else to do it,” Zuniga replies. “People see a big house and think I’m swimming in money. I’m what you call ‘house-poor.’”
But despite all the adverse twists of fate in her life, this New Paltz artist/entrepreneur is determined not to give up on her battle. “I want to finish it,” she says.