How unsafe housing conditions led to two fatal fires in a week

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At 333 East 181st St., or Twin Parks North West, the site of the Jan. 9 fire, all the victims were West African. It is the third deadly fire in the heavily Black and Latinx borough of the Bronx in the past 15 years. Only four years ago, a December 2017 fire killed 13 people, and a 2007 fire killed 10 people.

“It’s not surprising that it happens predominantly in a county made up of Black and brown folks and low-income neighborhoods where the city has neglected for decades,” said Andrea Shapiro, the director of program and advocacy with Met Council on Housing.

Surviving tenants of Twin Parks North West face an uncertain future. The city did not issue a vacate order for the building and declared it structurally sound, though some tenants could not return to their apartments due to damage. Some of those who were able to return prefer not to, due to the ongoing smell of smoke and a continuing lack of consistent heating and traumatic memories of the fire, according to Pilar DeJesus, a lawyer and organizer with the organization Take Root Justice who is working with tenants.

Tenants have been temporarily placed in hotels by the Red Cross, but as of this writing, those stays are set to elapse in two weeks.

“To go into the shelter system is not really, in my opinion, going to help your mental health get better,” DeJesus said of those facing ongoing traumatic effects of the deadly fire.

Twin Parks West building owners and city officials said most building complaints were marked as closed. But multiple tenants complained that supposedly self-closing doors, designed to shut through a spring mechanism unless they are completely ajar, had not been functioning. The fire was sparked by a malfunctioning space heater, and while the building did not have open heat complaints, tenants had been complaining about inconsistent heat for years.

Advocates point out that the city’s approach to building safety is complaint-driven and not proactive, putting tenants with less influence—be it through immigration status, wealth, or race—in a position of risking eviction every time they lodge a complaint. The Twin Parks North West building had changed hands multiple times in recent years, most recently put under the control of investment groups that own large affordable housing portfolios in New York City.

While New York state had an eviction moratorium from March 2020 until a few days after the fire, the fear of retaliation was still a reality.

“The tenants weren’t sure who the owner was, weren’t sure where the complaints went,” said Shapiro. “Many people didn’t feel like they had protections.”

These feelings were on display at a Jan. 21 Know Your Rights town hall organized for the building’s tenants by a group of nonprofits and grassroots organizations, including Undocublack, Gambian Youth Organization, Cair New York, and NYC’s Commission on Human Rights. In an auditorium at Monroe College in the Bronx, organizers gathered several dozen tenants of 333 East 181st St. who sat in gray plastic folding chairs, some mothers holding crying babies.

“There are a lot of questions of, what if my name is not on the lease. I’m undocumented. I’m scared to come forward and ask for the resources,” an organizer said to the audience, speaking through a translator. The organizer reiterated that these factors do not hinder their rights. Immigration status is a protected category under the city’s human rights law, as is race.

Even if a building is up to code, it may not paint a complete picture of ongoing safety issues. This was the case with the Jan. 5 fire in the Philadelphia row house owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. It was in an old building with low-income tenants. The fire tragically killed two generations of a family; including three sisters and their nine children.

The row house was up to code at the time of the fire, but this only means it had been found to have the appropriate number of working smoke detectors and windows on last inspection in May 2021. (Smoke detectors in the units were found unattached or without batteries.)

But updating Philadelphia’s housing code so that it provides safe, habitable conditions has been subject to ongoing advocacy, according to Jenna Collins, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. For instance, the windows in the building were not sufficient for victims to escape the fire, but were deemed appropriate by the city’s housing code, Collins said.

In both New York City and Philadelphia, advocates have wanted to mandate sprinkler systems in older housing stock where most low-income tenants live; real estate lobbies have protested this change in both cities.

“You are seeing the lowest income tenants forced into these properties that have a different standard than higher-income residents,” Collins said. The survivors who lived in the first floor of the Philadelphia duplex are now waiting for the housing authority to rehouse them, a challenge as emergency waiting lists can last months or years, Collins said.

DeJesus, in the Bronx, says she is still representing former tenants from the 2017 Bronx fire that killed 13 people. She said that some of the survivors of that fire are just now finding housing after years of couch-surfing and living in shelters. DeJesus says she’s frustrated with politicians who’ve talked about the fire but taken little action to help survivors, beyond a one-time promise of cash aid, which she says tenants she’s working with have not received.

“Why are the tenants thinking they’re going to be evicted from the hotels?” she asked. “What are they doing to hold the landlord and [Housing Preservation and Development] accountable for this?”

To help the victims of the Philadelphia and New York City fires, some mutual aid and GoFundMe campaigns have been set up for people to donate.

Roshan Abraham is a writer covering policy who is based in Queens. His writing has appeared in Slate, The Guardian, and The Baffler.

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