The Bronx Apartment Fire Is No Surprise to Me. I Was a NYC Renter.

Op-Ed: Freezing apartments, broken fire alarms and mismanaged tenant complaints are just the beginning. Here’s what needs to change to ensure that no housing becomes a death sentence.

(Photo by Zach Korb / CC BY-NC 2.0)

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An electric heater wasn’t the true cause of the fire that blazed through the Twin Parks North West in the Bronx earlier this month. It was poor legislation and lack of ongoing executive oversight of multifamily housing (subsidized and market-rate) that is giving New Yorkers a death sentence.

I moved into my first apartment in Manhattan in my early 20s, as I was working for the City of New York. The nights were very cold in my new apartment and there were no thermostats to regulate the heat. To sleep comfortably through the night I had to get an electric heater. After a day’s work at my city job, I would routinely come to my apartment, click on the two buttons of the electric heater, and turn the dial to high. I would make regular 311 complaints about the lack of heat. (Ironically at that time, one of my roommates was working for 311). After many complaints, nothing changed—with the exception of the monthly conEdison bill.

My next building was even colder. Shortly after I moved, I had begun working for the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in the Development Office. As was the case in my last building, calling 311 to report heat issues became a winter season tradition. A different sub-agency of HPD would respond to my 311 heat complaints. I had to request time off from work to wait around all day for HPD inspectors to enter my apartment and walk them through the apartment.

There are many issues with these heat complaint inspections, including:

  • Apartment/building inspection times: Every single time I was scheduled to meet an HPD inspector in my apartment, it was between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. My property manager, knowing this, would turn on the heat during these hours and then cut it off during the coldest times of the night.
  • Intensive case management: Issuing a complaint to 311 and coordinating an apartment inspection was casework in itself. It takes a lot of administrative time and attention to manage these heat complaints and many New Yorkers do not have the time or may even have language barriers navigating these systems.
  • Required time off from work: Many New Yorkers do not have the convenience or luxury to request days off from work to wait around for apartment inspections. Most folks who don’t have the ability to request time off from work would just brush off the issue and suffer through apartment conditions they are forced to endure.
  • Heat and hot water complaints have been mismanaged: In 2020, the New York State Comptroller’s Office conducted an audit suggesting that the thousands of annual heat and hot water complaints have been historically consolidated, making it difficult to discern buildings that had heat versus hot water complaints. This leads to conducting hot water inspections for buildings that may have only heat complaints. The data has not been reliable.
  • The system ultimately doesn’t protect tenants: The HPD inspectors I met were very thorough, diligent and always followed up with me—until my property manager got cases dismissed. The system seems eager to protect tenants, but adverse property managers prevent tenant protection from happening. It seems relatively easy for property managers to get their tenant heat complaints dismissed by paying fines—if any were issued at all—until the next heat complaint arises. On some days, I would even bump into my landlord in the lobby of HPD, making his in-person appearances to fight complaints against buildings in his property portfolio. Tenants remain very much at the mercy of the temperatures set by property managers. And if we are not satisfied with the temperatures, we are forced to buy electric heaters.

The problem extends beyond inspections. Often, the current heating laws themselves don’t work for tenants.

From October 1st to May 31st, building owners are required to set the temperature to 68 degrees from 6 a.m. t0 10 p.m. if the temperature is below 55 degrees outside. During the night, it must remain at least 62 degrees inside the building. It’s worth noting that the nighttime temperatures were only updated in 2018. The prior city heat requirement directed building owners to maintain a temperature of 55 degrees if the temperature fell below 40 degrees outside at night. Yes, heat was required to come on only if it reached 40 degrees outside, 8 degrees above freezing.

Who is really a part of decision-making to establish these thresholds? Are non-city workers involved in formulating the temperature benchmarks for multifamily housing? This should be publicly addressed.

Furthermore, there is currently no system in place for government agencies to guarantee that the temperatures are compliant throughout the citywide multifamily building portfolio. Congress Member Ritchie Torres recently discussed a policy to insert government-monitored sensors into buildings, which would allow agencies to inform property managers of non-compliance with heat regulations.

(Infographic courtesy of HPD)

Lastly, fire safety in multifamily buildings is extremely lacking. HPD has a list of fire safety requirements I just recently discovered. None of the buildings where I resided in New York—both pre-war and post-war buildings—were compliant with any of these requirements. Instead of a self-closing apartment front door, I would have to struggle pushing or pulling the door shut. I’ve encountered defective smoke alarms in my apartments and would have to purchase my own at local hardware stores. I’ve never received fire escape plans from property managers, nor have I ever seen stove knob covers. Who are we keeping safe if tenants are not informed of fire safety requirements that are placed onto their property managers? We need to disseminate graphics to tenants, such as the one HPD developed below.

(Infographic courtesy of HPD)

We need outreach campaigns so that tenants are empowered with the slew of property manager requirements they may not even be aware of. I would also like to see an outreach campaign between HPD, FDNY and local community development organizations for tenant outreach. The city should provide free fire extinguishers to multifamily buildings like Twin Parks North West, which do not comply with current building codes requiring fire escapes and sprinkler systems. There should be emergency funding provided to immediately get these buildings up to current building codes.

That building in the Bronx could have easily been any of my former apartment buildings in Upper Manhattan. To be an apartment renter in New York City should not mean living with inhabitable temperatures or relying daily on space heaters for warmth. We need more aggressive policies and oversight on multifamily buildings in New York. Living in any housing situation should not be a death sentence. We need decent, safe housing for all New Yorkers. Immediately.

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Raquel is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Empowered Block, an equity-driven community development consultancy. Raquel holds over 13 years of community development experience across sectors, including: affordable housing, economic development, social services policies, legislative affairs, historic preservation and transportation. Originally from New York City, Raquel holds a Master’s in Public Administration from the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, a Graduate Certificate in Real Estate Finance from the Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College, and a Bachelor’s in Sociology and Latin American & Caribbean Studies from Binghamton University. She has received numerous honors including appointment to the NYS Real Estate Board and Harlem Community Planning Board #10, as well as fellowships from Next City, Council of Urban Professionals, Morgan Stanley and 92Y Women in Power.

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Tags: new york cityrenters rights

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