As investigators determine what led an electric space heater to spark the deadliest fire in New York City in more than three decades, tenants and tenant advocacy groups in similar housing fear the conditions are ripe for disaster to strike again. Some are drawing attention to systemic issues that go beyond a single piece of malfunctioning equipment.
With arctic air enveloping a large swath of the United States on Tuesday — wind chills in New York City were nearing subzero levels — the use of space heaters will be ubiquitous in apartment buildings where there is inadequate heat or no heat at all, said Julie Colon, a tenant organizer with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a grassroots organization focusing on racial and economic justice.
This winter, she said, members of three tenant associations she communicates regularly with on WhatsApp have been swapping messages of no heat in their apartments. Other tenants in the group chats were advising them to document their conditions and contact the city’s 311 hotline.
“I have one building where the landlord hasn’t responded to complaints,” Colon said.
As an alternative, she said, tenants are piling on layers of clothing and using hot showers so steam fills their apartments, or they do “the old-school thing and open the oven.” Portable electric heaters are also extremely common.
The deadly fire that claimed the lives of 17 people in a high-rise tower in the Bronx is a grim reminder of how space heaters can be a “symbol of inequity,” she said, representing dangerous housing conditions, poor infrastructure, and neglect in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Many of those displaced in this week’s fire are families originally from Gambia in West Africa.
“The space heater for me is just the scariest thing,” she said.
The devastating blaze at Twin Parks North West began just before 11 a.m. Sunday and was started by what appeared to be a malfunctioning electric space heater in a third-floor unit’s bedroom, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at a news conference. The 19-story, 120-unit building did have working heat, he said, but the space heater was used to supplement it.
In addition, the front door of the apartment where the fire began, as well as another door on the 15th floor, were being investigated for why they didn’t automatically close, he said. Self-closing doors are required under a city law adopted in 2018 following an apartment building fire in the Bronx that killed 12 people. Doors that shut on their own are a way to contain the spread of fire and smoke.
Residents of the complex also reported that smoke alarms often sounded in the building, leading people to ignore them.
The owner of the building, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, said there was a request in July 2021 to repair the lock of the front door belonging to the unit where the latest fire began. The door’s self-closing mechanism was also checked and no further issues were reported to the property management, according to a spokesperson.
The spokesperson also said there are no known issues with the smoke alarms and they appeared to be working as designed. The building does have a sprinkler system, but only in the compactor and laundry room areas, as required by the fire code when the complex was built in 1972, city records show.
But that’s not good enough, said Shane Ray, a former state fire marshal in South Carolina and the president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, which advocates for fire sprinklers. His group supports a bill in Congress that would incentivize building owners to upgrade and retrofit residential properties with sprinklers.
There are countless aging high-rise buildings in cities across the country that lack sprinklers, he said, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alone estimates 570,000 of its public housing units were constructed prior to sprinkler requirements. He said that money from the White House’s stalled Build Back Better legislation would have gone toward public housing upgrades, including fire sprinklers.
“Fire sprinklers are the only piece of fire protection that will actively do something about the fire,” he said. “Fire sprinklers buy time, and time buys lives.”
The National Fire Sprinkler Association and other industry groups, including the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Association of State Fire Marshals, are demanding Washington lawmakers make fire safety a priority in light of the Bronx fire and another deadly blaze this month in Philadelphia that killed a dozen people. In both cases, children made up a large number of the victims.
On Monday, Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat whose Latino-majority district in the Bronx is considered the poorest in the country, said a task force of local and federal officials would be formed to look at fire safety.
“We’re going to examine issues relating to the manufacturing of space heaters, the use of space heaters in residential homes, sprinkler systems, self-closing doors, fire and smoke alarm systems,” he told reporters.
But tenant advocacy groups say the entire system that contributed to the latest calamity requires immediate action and more than just an overhaul of fire safety regulations. At the heart of the conversation, they say, is addressing the lack of adequate heat provided by landlords and property managers.
Twin Parks North West was the subject of more than a dozen complaints last year to the city, housing records show, including for broken pipes and rodent infestations and pests. At least three units complained about heating problems. The building’s owner said those complaints were remedied.
Even if there was sufficient heat in the building at the time of Sunday’s fire, the broader scenario of renters having to turn to space heaters because of heating problems is serious, said Pilar DeJesus, an advocacy coordinator with TakeRoot Justice, a nonprofit legal aid group in New York City.
She routinely has clients who’ve complained about lack of heat, hot water or gas, and have taken landlords to court to try and force repairs. But cases in the court system can stall or landlords aren’t able to make repairs in a timely manner, and that leaves residents continuing to resort to alternative heating sources like electric heaters, she said.
DeJesus said residents have also expressed concerns that heat is being shut off or turned down and other services decreased in an attempt to drive them from their apartments and destabilize their units, an accusation that can be difficult to prove.
Even the widespread issue of rodents in buildings can have an effect on units, where vermin might chew on wiring and wear it down, making for a dangerous situation.
“This is about more than a space heater,” DeJesus said. “We need to get to the root of the problems.”
Landlords, however, are facing their own financial crunch during the pandemic as heating costs rise. For instance, home heating oil was up $3.71 per gallon in New York City in November, according to the latest state data, the highest in eight years.
For Barbara Lauray, the president of the tenants association of her public housing complex in the Bronx, the lack of reliable heat this winter has made her miserable. She says she uses one space heater in her apartment but is terrified of having more because she is visually impaired and may trip on it or not notice if something is blocking it.
To keep warm in her apartment, which she shares with her three adult children, she turns the oven on and boils pots of water, which she began doing early Tuesday to combat the arrival of colder temperatures. She said the city’s housing authority has tried to patch up the complex’s boilers, but it’s a “Band-Aid” that requires a new system.
Dressed in a sweatsuit, hoodie and boots, Lauray said her situation was “unlivable.” But what else could she do, she asked.
“I think about those displaced residents,” she said, referring to the scene of devastation about 2 miles from her Bronx neighborhood.
“We have 344 units here. Children, babies, senior citizens, people with medical conditions are here. And everyone,” she said, “has space heaters.”