The Bronx apartment building where a fire killed at least 17 people Sunday, eight of them children, was the subject of at least two maintenance code violations last year related to broken or defective fire retardant material in its walls.
Publicly available data shows that on April 2 and October 21, 2021, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued two notices of violations related to fire retardant material on the building’s first and 12th stories. A step beyond the status of “complaints,” HPD violations are issued only when breaches of the city’s housing maintenance code or state law have been verified by inspection. The October violation was marked closed as of November 16, but the April violation remains open, according to a city spreadsheet updated daily. The same dataset says the building has 17 other open violations, including mouse and cockroach infestations, lead-based paint, and mold.
A spokesperson for the building, which is owned by the real estate investment firms Camber Property Group, Belveron Partners, and LIHC Investment Group, said that all open violations have been cured. She suggested that HPD just hasn’t resolved the April fire retardant violation in its system, though the public data is marked as up to date as of Tuesday. The spokesperson directed questions about specific violations to HPD.
“The health and safety of New York City families remains HPD’s top priority,” a department spokesperson wrote to The Intercept, adding that HPD would look into the status of the fire-related violation listed as open. “We will take action if owners fail to uphold their responsibility to maintain safe and secure housing.”
HPD also tracks complaints made online, to borough offices, and to 311 regarding conditions that violate housing code or state law. The department has recorded 65 complaints in the Bronx building since 2014, including 11 complaints last year. (Unlike violations, complaints are counted as reported by the public without necessarily being verified by inspection.) The building has received at least 169 violation notices since 2010, according to Who Owns What, a database created by a New York City housing justice coalition. In January 2014, the Bronx building received another code violation for a missing glass pane in a fire door on the 19th story. The violation was marked as closed later that month.
With New York state’s eviction moratorium set to expire January 15, more than 200,000 families are facing the possibility of being evicted. As these families scramble to secure homes, Camber Property Group, Belveron Partners, and LIHC Investment Group control a sizable portion of the city’s affordable housing stock. In addition to the Bronx property, the three firms own numerous other buildings in New York City, including several subsidized with taxpayer dollars. In 2018, Camber and Belveron bought three Section 8 properties in Harlem, Morningside Heights, and Washington Heights for $60 million. With LIHC, they acquired a $166 million portfolio in the Bronx in January 2020, which included the building at 333 E. 181st St. that burned Sunday. The day before the fire, Camber, LIHC, and a nonprofit called the Settlement Housing Fund announced an $85 million acquisition of a nine-building complex in Harlem. The deal included a $73.1 million loan in partnership with the New York City Housing Development Corporation.
“This is a result of severe disinvestment in our infrastructure,” said New York Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents the 65th District covering lower Manhattan, where a major fire took place in Chinatown in January 2020. She pointed out that the Bronx building is an affordable housing complex under the purview of the state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency, and “we are responsible for it.”
The New York “Legislature should be asking for more oversight” over developers and predatory landlords, Niou said. “It’s no coincidence that the owners of this building were also deeply politically connected despite hundreds of maintenance and safety complaints.”
Camber co-founder and principal Rick Gropper was named as a member of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s transition team for housing earlier this month. Another Camber principal, Andrew Moelis, was previously an associate at Empire State Development, the state agency that runs New York’s two major public development corporations. His father, Ron Moelis, runs a for-profit affordable housing company for which Gropper was previously the development director.
At the Camber, Belveron, and LIHC property that burned over the weekend, tenants told The City, a nonprofit news outlet, that the smoke alarm system went off frequently, leading people to believe that Sunday’s alarm was false. The building spokesperson told The Intercept that there were no known issues with smoke alarms, maintaining that the fire alarm system worked as designed. “Incidents of residents smoking in the stairwells of the property have been known to trip the alarms. Our property management team has been working with residents to address this issue.”
In the wake of multiple reports from tenants that the doors routinely failed to close, the spokesperson added that all doors in the building are self-closing as required by city code. Referring to a work order completed on one door in July, the spokesperson said that “the self-closing mechanism was checked in accordance with standard operating procedure. No further issues about the door were reported to property management since then.” She said that there were no open violations or complaints on any other doors in the building.
In a press conference Monday, city Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that the front door of the apartment where the fire started had failed to close as intended. “The door was not obstructed,” Nigro said. “The door, when it was fully open, stayed fully open because it malfunctioned.”
An HPD spokesperson said that the agency proactively checks to ensure compliance of self-closing doors in every apartment it inspects regardless of initial complaints and that citywide it “issued more than 22,000 self-closing door violations, of which 18,000 were closed as corrected.” None of those violations were issued in the building where Sunday’s fire took place.
“Our city has so far not shown it takes seriously the unlivable conditions facing our renters in low-income and affordable housing.”
The fire is at least the second in a U.S. residential complex this year. Earlier this month, a fire in a public housing unit in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood killed 12 people, including eight children. The unit is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the city’s largest landlord. Another fire at an apartment complex in Manhattan’s East Village happened Monday night with no reported injuries.
At Monday’s press conference, Adams added that if people took “one message” away from the fire, it should be: “Close the door.” The concept was the subject of major ad campaigns in the early 2000s to stop residential fires in the city, which disproportionately impact apartment buildings in the Bronx and other areas of New York where buildings are older or not up to code. The New York City Fire Department launched a similar campaign in 2018 after a fire in the Bronx killed 13 people.
“Do they have heat and hot water?” Niou asked. “We’re literally asking residents to address what is the state’s obligation to address. And our city has so far not shown it takes seriously the unlivable conditions facing our renters in low-income and affordable housing.”