The fire, New York’s deadliest in decades, shows why pandemic-era housing policy Band-Aids aren’t enough.
Within 12 hours of New York City’s deadliest fire in decades, which killed 17 people in the Bronx on Sunday night, officials were willing and able to apportion blame. “A space heater is blamed for the deadly fire in a Bronx apartment building,” noted a New York Times headline Monday; New York Mayor Eric Adams had announced as much in a statement. The explanation was not so much false as it was wildly insufficient.
The blaze was indeed reportedly sparked by a malfunctioning space heater. This alone was not enough to kill 17 tenants, including eight children, and leave dozens more hospitalized in critical condition. According to reports, the fire itself was contained to one apartment. Dense black smoke, meanwhile, spread through the entire 19-story building, through an apartment door that, were it in line with New York City codes since 2018, should have been self-closing.
The 1970s building complex, Twin Parks North West, has no outdoor fire escapes and a history of management neglect, violations, and complaints — including over lack of heat and ventilation. Corporate ownership turnover has only compounded problems. Under normal circumstances, residents said, false fire alarms blared so frequently throughout the day that they had become accustomed to ignoring them.
The Bronx fire was not only a tragedy, but also an injustice, suffered by predominantly poor, working-class, African immigrant families living on Section 8 vouchers, a form of government rental assistance for low-income people. This injustice highlights the need — made ever clearer during the Covid-19 pandemic — to drastically shift power over housing stock away from landlords and investors and into the hands of tenants.
This injustice highlights the need to drastically shift power over housing stock away from landlords and into the hands of tenants.
The struggle for housing justice has taken on a new urgency in the pandemic, with a powerful surge in both tenant organizing and mass rent strikes, coupled with a necessary focus on the immediate need for eviction moratoria, their extensions, and the demand for federal rental assistance. As longtime housing advocates have consistently stressed, pandemic-era Band-Aids aren’t enough. Their claims are borne out by the fact that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and leaders in Albany are allowing the state’s eviction moratorium to end January 15, as Covid cases continue to spike and hundreds of thousands of tenants owe back rent and could lose their homes.
The coming eviction wave and the deadly fire in which New York’s poorest choked to death in their own homes cannot be seen as distinct crises. They are proof of an intolerable system, a state of consistent structural violence by which tenants’ lives are deprioritized in service of landlord and investor bottom lines. They are the evidence that structural shifts in housing policy cannot wait.
It is hardly a coincidence that the West Bronx, where the fire took place, has been described as “ground zero for eviction filings” since March 2020 — eviction proceedings that are stalled only while the moratorium stands.
New York political leaders — both Hochul and Adams — have vowed robust support and permanent housing for those made homeless by the fire. As the New York Times reported, the specific rental assistance vouchers used in the Bronx development are not transferable, rendering it difficult for displaced residents to find permanent housing. “We will not forget you. We will not abandon you,” Hochul said Monday.
Yet survivors of a previous apartment fire in the Bronx in March 2020, which killed four people, remained without stable housing 18 months after the deadly event, City Limits reported in September. Chestnut Holdings, the management company in that case — the owner of one of the city’s largest portfolios of rent-stabilized apartments — has failed to complete necessary renovations, prompting legal action from tenants who fear that the property owners are trying to force them to abandon their rent-regulated homes.
We have scant grounds to put faith in the city and state governments’ promises of safe, permanent places to live for those forced from their homes. Just days ago, the new governor and new mayor — a centrist Democrat and a belligerent former cop, respectively — stood side by side and announced a plan to address homelessness by sending more police to respond to unhoused people taking shelter in the New York subway. As such, they continue a long and violent tradition of criminalizing the poor.
On Monday, Adams called the most recent Bronx fire a “tragedy beyond measure” — which it is. He later said that the “one message” people should take from the tragedy was to close doors in the name of fire safety, implicitly placing blame on the family who fled their burning apartment for failing to close the door behind them, enabling the smoke to spread. He did not note that the door should have been self-closing.
Adams also did not mention that a member of his transition team for housing issues, Rick Gropper, is the co-founder of Camber Property Group — one of the investors that bought the Bronx building as part of a $166 million, eight-building deal in early 2020. In such profit-driven property relations, affordable housing is treated as an asset and leveraged for access to tax credits. It all but assures that tenants are afterthoughts.
“They’re focused on when to collect their checks and who lives in which apartment. I have to fix everything in my apartment,” a 51-year-old resident of Twin Parks North West, Yamina Rodríguez, whose family survived the fire, told The City. Another resident, Tawanna Davis, who was rescued by firefighters from her apartment on the 15th floor, said of the lack of owner accountability: “Now we have so many different managements we don’t even know what [it’s] called.”
This may not be the 1970s, when landlords in the Bronx quite literally burned down dilapidated, redlined buildings to claim fire insurance payouts, but the neglect and risk faced by poor tenants today is no less systematically produced. The issue is, of course, not specific to New York. Just last week, a fire raged through a dangerously overcrowded public housing unit in Philadelphia, leaving 12 people dead.
Following the Philadelphia fire, the New York Times put it plainly: “Across the country, a crisis in affordable housing has been festering for years, and with the lifting of eviction moratoriums and the dwindling of rental assistance funds offered during the coronavirus pandemic, it is only getting worse.”
Tenant organizers have shown extraordinary strength and solidarity throughout the pandemic. Rent strikes of historic size have not only helped ensure that whole buildings receive rental assistance, but also in numerous cases have helped hold neglectful landlords to account. The ending of eviction moratoria makes this work all the more necessary. Rent strikes, though, remain a high-risk activity so long as landlords hold the power to summarily evict tenants.
For these reasons, housing rights advocates and progressive politicians in New York are pushing hard for the passage of a “good cause” eviction bill into law, which would give tenants the right to lease renewals, cap rent increases on existing tenants, and prevent landlords from removing a renter without an order from a judge, even if their lease has expired or they never had a lease. It would also protect tenants who are demanding repairs or complaining about lack of heat and hot water.
When Hochul announced her $25 billion affordable housing plan last week, which aims to create and preserve 100,000 units of affordable housing and 10,000 supportive housing apartments, she said nothing of eviction laws. “Good cause” eviction is not a fix-all solution to violent property relations, but at the very least the law would mitigate the risk of fighting a landlord over living standards. In a scenario of true housing justice — a reality distant from our own — very little, and certainly not lack of payment, would count as “good cause” to evict someone from their home.
There’s no impetus for property owners to improve living conditions; the federal rent checks and tax credits will flow either way.
Residents in public housing and those dependent on Section 8 vouchers for rent have the least leverage over the condition of their homes. There’s no impetus for property owners to improve living conditions; the federal rent checks and tax credits will flow either way.
Events like the Bronx fire should motivate a significant and structural government response. All too often, they do not. Over four years since a fire in London’s Grenfell Tower public housing high-rise killed 72 people, there has been vanishingly little systemic change.
Political leaders on this side of the Atlantic will do no better if they are not pushed — pushed by activists like those already on the ground in the Bronx, some of whom are immigrant organizers from Gambia, the birthplace of a significant number of Twin Parks North West’s tenants.
Adams can put his energies into policing poverty and telling apartment residents to close our doors in case of fire. To his door and the doors of his allies in the real estate industry, meanwhile, we must bring the fight to decommodify housing and take tenants’ lives out of profiteers’ hands.