On 9 January, smoke from a fire that started with a malfunctioning portable electric heater killed 17 people, including eight children, in a high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Bronx borough.
Days earlier, a fire inside a Philadelphia rowhouse operated by the city’s housing authority killed 12 people, including eight children.
The fires – among the deadliest in modern US history – have underscored neglect in the country’s low-income housing units, typically magnified only in the wake of tragedies.
While New York officials investigate how a small fire inside the 19-story building became the city’s most lethal since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson attack on a nightclub in the same borough, affordable housing advocates argue that the tragedy has further exposed vulnerabilities in the nation’s low-income housing stock.
Much of the blame has been placed on a resident’s broken space heater and a malfunctioning door, but tenants and advocates point to a range of issues stemming from chronic neglect, coming up against a diminishing pool of rental assistance funds during the Covid-19 pandemic, and, as in New York, the end of eviction moratoriums that could displace thousands of families.
Following its construction in the early 1970s, Twin Parks North West was considered a paragon of affordable housing during so-called urban renewal campaigns, a modernist ideal in contrast to the images of row houses and dilapidated tenement buildings that defined housing for lower-income residents in previous decades.
The borough’s mostly residential Tremont neighbourhood holds a diverse population, with roughly 43 per cent of its residents from outside the US, according to city data. Many of the residents at Twin Parks are Muslim and from West African immigrant families.
Within recent years, the property has accrued a history of building violations and complaints, including lack of adequate heat and broken or defective fire retardant material.
Investigators found that the fire and smoke were exacerbated by a series of preventable issues. Though the fire from the broken heater did not spread far from the unit itself, a door that allowed residents to flee into the hallway did not close behind them, despite the door having a self-closing mechanism as required by law. It was broken.
Deadly smoke quickly poured from a two-story apartment through the broken door and into the building’s internal stairwell, crawling up to the 15th floor, where another hallway door was open.
Firefighters arrived within minutes. The fire alarm was in working order, though residents have reported that they often ignored repeat false alarms.
New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said residents were found suffering smoke inhalation “on every floor, in stairways”.
“The fire was contained to the hallway just outside the two-story apartment, but the smoke traveled throughout the building, and the smoke is what caused the deaths and serious injuries,” he said.
The building – owned by investment firms LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group since 2020 – faced more than 30 complaints in 2021 alone, including “immediately hazardous” requests for assistance. One unit made 10 complaints in December, including lack of heat and a broken radiator, according to city records.
Camber’s Rick Gropper also has come under scrutiny after reports revealed he previously served as a housing adviser to New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
In a statement following the fire, the property group said it was “devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy” and is “cooperating fully with the fire department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents.”
At a press conference on 11 January, the mayor said “if we take one thing from this … close the door,” echoing a public service message he heard as a child.
“We’re going to double down on that message,” he said. “This painful moment can turn into a purposeful moment.”
Advocates and legislators have argued that such burdens should not be placed on vulnerable residents left to manage broken buildings while they still fight for heat and hot water.
“When it comes to fire safety, New York is a tale of two cities,” said US Rep Ritchie Torres, whose district encompasses the Bronx.
“When we allow affordable housing to be chronically underfunded, we are putting the lives of tenants at risk,” he said. “There are landlords that deny their tenants heat and hot water, and even when landlords are providing the legal minimum, what the law requires often falls short of the level of heat that tenants need to remain warm in their apartments.”
The mayor’s office has established a fund to raise donations for emergency relief and support for the victims and their families.
2 terrible fires in a week, one in public housing, the other in project based S8. Devastating loss of life, many unanswered questions. One thing is clear: everyone deserves - and too many people in this country don’t yet have - decent, safe, affordable homes.
— Diane Yentel (@dianeyentel) January 10, 2022
Malfunctioning space heaters have been linked to roughly 1,700 residential fires every year, resulting in 80 deaths and 160 injuries annually, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Homes in the city’s lower-income neighbourhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn are more likely to rely on supplemental heating in colder months than their wealthier neighbors, according to a city housing survey.
During colder months, New York landlords are required to ensure the temperatures in their properties are 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 62 at night.
Inefficient homes and reliance on supplemental heating also lead to an imbalance in energy costs, as lower-income households spent more than 8 per cent of their income on energy costs, on average, compared to 2.3 per cent among non-low-income households.
The Bronx building also did not have an adequate sprinkler system as required under law.
A high-rise apartment fire in Minneapolis killed five people and injured four others the day before Thanksgiving in 2019. It did not gave a sprinkler system, as Minnesota buildings built before 1979 were not covered under state sprinkler requirements. Investigators concluded that a sprinkler system would have saved their lives.
US Reps Bonnie Watson Coleman, Ilhan Omar and John Rutherford have sponsored the Public Housing Fire Safety Act, which would create a grant program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help public housing authorities retrofit older high-rise apartments with sprinkler systems.
“This problem is more widespread than many realize,” congresswoman Watson Coleman said.
“For example, [93 per cent] of public housing units in New York City were built before the Federal Fire Safety Act of 1992 that required the installation of fire sprinklers in all new government-owned high-rise buildings,” she explained. “There is no master list of buildings that have been retrofitted but it’s estimated that [millions] of Americans live in homes without adequate fire safety measures. Our bill would also address this oversight.”
Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have sponsored a senate version of the bill.
Each candle represents 100 families facing eviction in New York on January 15, when our eviction moratorium is set to expire. Over two hundred thousand. #GoodCauseEviction #HouseNY pic.twitter.com/Dy5OeLbyD9
— Housing Justice For All (@housing4allNY) January 11, 2022
The Bronx fire – impacting a community of predominantly lower-income residents, African immigrants, and residents relying on Section 8 vouchers, a government programme to help subsidize the costs of housing – has also displaced dozens of people.
“This is my first week on the job,” said recently elected Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, who said her office is working to “do everything necessary to support” families displaced by the fire, including temporary and long-term housing solutions.
The night of the fire, Housing Justice for All held a vigil for families across the state that are likely to be displaced by the end of a statewide eviction freeze on 15 January.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul and lawmakers have allowed the state’s pandemic eviction freeze to lapse, as thousands of tenants owe back rent that could put them at risk of losing their homes.
By the end of 2021, New York households received more than $2.2bn in emergency rental assistance, but only 2 per cent of households with overdue rental payments received aid, according to the National Equity Atlas. An estimated 591,000 households in the state are behind on rental payments, and nearly three-quarters are households of colour.
The governor recently announced $25bn for affordable housing would create and preserve 100,000 units and 10,000 supportive housing apartments.
Progressive lawmakers and tenant advocates have also pushed for passage of a Good Cause Eviction bill, which would create permanent eviction protections, regulate rent increases and establish automatic rent renewals, in most cases.
Last year, a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there is not a single state, county or city anywhere in the country where a person working 40 hours a week on minimum wage can afford rent for a two-bedroom property.
An hourly “housing wage” – what Americans would need to earn to afford a fair-market rental and utilities without spending more than 30 per cent of their income – would need be set at $24.90 for a modest two-bedroom rental home and $20.40 per hour for a modest one-bedroom rental home, according to the report.
Citywide homelessness during the pandemic has been shrinking, with eviction freezes likely contributing to the 11 per cent decline in the sheltered homeless population over the course of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, according advocates and data from the Department of Homeless Services.
More than 45,000 people – including 14,600 children – were in city shelters, as of last week, though city data does not include thousands of people who sleep on the streets each night.
“There should be no complacency when it comes to what lies ahead as the eviction moratorium expires,” said Coalition for the Homeless deputy executive policy director Shelly Nortz in response to the governor’s state of the state address.
“In the absence of additional funds needed to meet the extraordinary amount of pent-up demand for back rent and ongoing rent subsidies, easily in the billions of dollars, homelessness will rise rapidly in the months ahead, even as the Omicron variant surges,” she warned.