“How many more people gotta die?” ask Bronx residents

After building fire kills 17, Bronx community members plead for system-wide solutions as City shifts blame from landlord to residents

January 12, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Twin Parks North West, site of tragic fire in Bronx, NY. Photo: Natalia Marques

17 New Yorkers are dead and 15 remain in critical condition after a fire blazed through Twin Parks North West, a housing complex in the Bronx on Sunday morning. The tragic fire is one of the worst in New York’s recent history and has been widely criticized by activists and residents for having its root in systemic neglect by the city and landlords. The city on the other hand, has attempted to deflect blame for the tragedy and point fingers at the low income tenants themselves.

For its part, the New York City Fire Department stated that a resident’s faulty space heater is the culprit. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a federal agency, has since announced that it will open up an investigation into the fire and the role of the space heater.

Meanwhile, New York’s newly elected mayor, Eric Adams, said in a press conference on Monday January 10 that a door that was left open as residents were fleeing the smoke was a primary reason for the fire’s rapid spread. During the press conference he expressed a need to educate New Yorkers regarding keeping doors closed during a fire. In his words: “muscle memory is everything. And if we can drill that in, we can save lives by closing the doors.” Adams did not mention that according to New York City law, the door should have been self-closing.

Missing from the city’s explanations for the fire is a deep investigation into the larger issues of unsafe housing that plague New York City. This past summer, 13 people died in New York City during flash floods, 11 of whom drowned in unsafe, unregulated basement apartments which many of the city’s poor and working class residents are forced to live in due to skyrocketing housing costs.

For those who do have access to the city’s limited public housing, they face another set of challenges. The public units’ safety is undermined by poor maintenance and underfunding. From increasing the risk of COVID-19 exposure and death, to losing heat for up to a month in the dead of winter, tenants have highlighted time and time again that more needs to be done to safeguard their lives by authorities. Despite city laws mandating that landlords provide adequate heat this is often not enforced and residents have to find alternative methods to stay warm. Many use space heaters which according to data from the CPSC on average cause 80 deaths and 160 injuries per year.

“There’s no care to the neighborhood, there’s no care to the Bronx”

The day after the fire, neighbors gathered in front of Twin Parks North West, exchanging stories of lost loved ones and housing woes, and bringing food and clothing to local community centers. Nafee, a young woman whose cousin perished in the fire, expressed to Peoples Dispatch: “There’s no care to the neighborhood, there’s no care to the Bronx. And I don’t know when it’s ever going to change. We’ve been praying for change since God knows when. But how many more people gotta die? How many more fires gotta start?”

The 15th congressional district, which spans the south and central Bronx and includes the building in which the fire took place, is the poorest in the nation. More than 40% of children in the Bronx live in poverty. The Bronx has a history of poverty and neglect, typified by the intentional fires that blazed in the 1970s as landlords destroyed their dilapidated buildings for insurance payouts.

In recent times, as the borough and its residents have been some of the most affected by the pandemic induced economic crisis and growing unemployment, evictions have also been increasing as many Bronxites have been unable to make rent. The West Bronx, where the fire took place, is “ground zero for eviction filings” according to The Gothamist. For many Bronx residents, the ongoing eviction moratorium, set to expire this Saturday, is the tenuous barrier preventing filed evictions from being carried out.

Many residents of Twin Parks North West held project-based Section 8, a voucher providing access to discounted housing that is tied to a specific building, and non-transferable to others. With the fire destroying many apartments in the building, those families and individuals have lost their access to Section 8. Although New York State Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Adams have promised to find permanent housing for the victims, recent experiences cast doubts. Survivors of a previous Bronx fire in March 2020 that claimed four lives, went without permanent housing for 18 months, and now worry that this is part of a city-wide effort to displace poor residents in favor of more affluent ones.

“This could have been prevented”

Another community member, Dory, who used to live in the neighborhood and whose father lives in another building within the Twin Parks complex, drew attention to the ongoing problems at Twin Parks North West. She told Peoples Dispatch that the fire could have been prevented had people not lacked proper resources “in terms of heat, hot water, self-closing doors,” she said.

The specific building that caught on fire within the Twin Parks North West complex, located at 333 East 181st Street, has 18 open violations. The complaint history of the building shows many complaints were related to lack of heat in particular, answering the unasked question of why a resident would need a space heater in the first place.

Complaint history of the building that caught on fire, 333 East 181 street. Via New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development

Two survivors of the fire filed a lawsuit recently, alleging that the building was unsafe with inadequate heat, fire escapes, sprinklers, smoke alarms, intercom, and electrical lines. The entire building lacks sprinklers and outdoor fire escapes altogether. Residents of Twin Parks North West commented that they are accustomed to faulty smoke alarms that go off so frequently that they learned to ignore them. A spokesperson for the building’s property owners denied that there were issues with smoke alarms.

Eric Adams seems unwilling to investigate further beyond individual use of a space heater. When asked about such further investigation, Adams replied “There was no outstanding violations to our knowledge of a heat complaint in the building.”

Landlords and accountability

Dory insisted “If these people would have had adequate heat. This could have been prevented.” According to her, the solution lies beyond public education around closing doors and consumer safety regarding space heaters. “All the landlords who have violations need to be put in jail. You don’t want to fix the violations. You don’t want to put these buildings up to code. You need to go to jail.”

The new mayor’s own relationship to such landlords has also been raised. The landlord of Twin Parks North West, Rick Gropper, was appointed to Adams’ housing transition team. Adams was also the mayoral candidate who received the most funding by real estate developers out of any other.

Gropper, as an owner of state-subsidized housing, received $38 million in tax-exempt bonds and 1.6 million per year in tax credits from New York State to upgrade and repair Twin Parks North West and his other properties. However, in light of the building’s complaints and violations, one wonders if these millions were put to good use.

“The city needs to change.” Dory went on. “There needs to be real investigation. There needs to be a lot of the landlords held accountable…Maybe then these landlords will get their sh*t together.”

“The only people that have been engaging so far is the community”

Despite the tragedy, the community around Twin Parks North West, composed largely of West African immigrants, has heroically banded together to sustain the survivors of the blaze. Local organizations such as the Gambian Youth Organization have collected money, clothes, and food for the neighborhood. Community members like Nafee juxtaposed these efforts with the City’s response: “I don’t see nothing yet,” she said regarding the city’s response. “The only people that have been engaging so far is the community, the way we jump together and ran through and got all this done within less than twenty four hours…people are donating since morning. Our Gambian community here in this area is very strong.”

New Yorkers have a history of banding together to force change after tragedies, going back as far as one of the deadliest fires in the city, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 that killed 146 workers. The response of New York’s working class was to fight in the trade union, socialist, and women’s movements to improve safety conditions for workers. When landlords burned buildings in the Bronx in the 1970s, local residents led efforts to rebuild.

Despite the impressive response of the community in this crisis, neighbors demand larger, system-wide solutions to the tragedy. Nafee articulated: “We’re doing as much as we can, and thank God we were able to do it as much as we did, but we cannot do it alone.”