Opinion: Demanding Greater Accountability in Wake of Fatal Bronx Fire

‘The incident has sparked a national conversation about housing injustice and raised a critical question that we must all ask ourselves: Why must it take a high death toll to acknowledge the dangers of substandard housing?’

Within just one month of the tragic Twin Parks fire that took the lives of 17 New Yorkers, there were at least two other residential fires that transpired in The Bronx, with the latest injuring at least 10 people.

In Twin Parks’ immediate aftermath, city and federal officials vowed to enforce stronger fire safety protocols. City Council members and The Bronx borough president swiftly assembled a Bronx Task Force on Fire Safety to address the building fire’s causes: a space heater that was left running for several days and a malfunctioning stairwell door that was left open. U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (NY-15) and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer crafted a four-point legislative proposal to investigate housing fires nationally. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) issued a statement addressing heat season safety, cautioning its tenants to use space heaters only “as temporary heating devices” and “for a limited time each day.”

While these efforts are meaningful, they do not go far enough to prevent future residential fires in New York City and especially in lower-income Black and Latine neighborhoods.

The Bronx’s history of redlining, its legacy of fires, and millionaire investors’ control over its affordable housing stock make the Twin Parks tragedy a recent example of what can occur when housing safety is ignored and building code violations are left unaddressed. The incident has sparked a national conversation about housing injustice and raised a critical question that we must all ask ourselves: Why must it take a high death toll to acknowledge the dangers of substandard housing?

As a public defender and housing advocate at The Bronx Defenders, I daily witness the lack of accountability for landlords and its disastrous consequences on the lives of the people I serve.

Similar to Twin Parks residents, most of the people I represent in Bronx Housing Court are people of color who live in immigrant households and who receive some form of a housing subsidy. Decades of community divestment, discriminatory policies, and environmental racism have contributed to the deterioration of public housing complexes, high unemployment rates, and serious health consequences in The Bronx. And without the financial means to hold landlords accountable, many tenants are often left with no choice but to survive in the conditions they are left in.

Over the last 13 years, Elizabeth Holmes, a supportive housing tenant, has lodged countless complaints with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), who issued numerous building code violations against her landlord. In late 2021, she sued her landlord for repairs. In addition to a laundry list of hazardous violations—ranging from mice and roach infestations to visible mold and a broken entrance door—her primary concern has remained inadequate heat.

Ms. Holmes’ household is considered “energy cost burdened,” defined as spending over six percent of its income on utility bills. In 2019, nearly 25 percent of the city’s energy cost-burdened households were in The Bronx. The borough also has a higher percentage of homes dependent on supplemental heat than others citywide.

“These people are freezing us to death,” she tells me. “I may not make it to see tomorrow.” Since October, she has used a space heater to compensate for the poor building insulation in her fourth-floor unit. Her Con Edison bills, which she pays out-of-pocket, have skyrocketed.

Despite her efforts, the problems persist, and her repairs litigation continues through the frigid winter months. Neither her landlord nor HPD has inspected her unit’s heating system.

Landlords seldom, if ever, pay the civil costs like financial penalties associated with reported building violations. And neither our elected officials nor code enforcement agencies are held accountable for ensuring that these violations are remedied.

Unfortunately, Ms. Holmes’ experience as a tenant litigant is the norm, not the exception. For many of the people I represent, bringing a case against a landlord for emergency repairs in Bronx Housing Court is an overly burdensome and lengthy process that too often does not result in adequate relief.

In the 2020-2021 heat season (October-May), HPD received 114,247 heat and hot water complaints and issued 9,309 violations. Two days after the Twin Parks fire, HPD received the highest number of heat complaints in a single day in its current heat season—a dramatic figure of 4,370 citywide.

Many tenants, including Ms. Holmes, wrestle with inefficiencies in the city’s code enforcement agencies which have worsened due to a staffing shortage since the start of the pandemic. Due to the city’s track record in responding inadequately to complaints, tenants often lack faith in calling 3-1-1 to get help in resolving dangerous housing conditions.

Although the material causes of the Twin Parks fire may have been a defective space heater and door, the fatal event is emblematic of the need to address its root causes—landlords’ negligence in maintaining affordable housing complexes. To ensure tenants’ safety in their homes, New York must overhaul the current fire safety laws and pass sweeping legislation to hold landlords accountable for their failures.

Bills like A490/S5278, which would require landlords to have “clean hands”—no open building code violations—before pursuing certain eviction cases, including for nonpayment of rent, recognize that housing safety is a matter of housing justice. It’s past time that the real estate industry prioritizes New Yorkers’ health and safety over corporate greed.

Siya Hegde is an attorney and policy counsel at The Bronx Defenders. The Civil Action Practice at The Bronx Defenders works to defend tenants from the threat of eviction and other forms of housing displacement. If you have a question about your housing situation, please call our hotline at 845-288-2611 to speak with a Right to Counsel lawyer or advocate. The hotline is available every other Monday, starting Jan. 31, from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. While we cannot guarantee representation, we will provide free legal advice and information regarding your situation.

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