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As Officials Blame Tenants After 17 Die in Bronx Fire, Activists Say Greed & Neglect Are to Blame

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A massive fire in an apartment building in the Bronx, New York, killed 17 people, including eight children, on Sunday. The city is blaming the fire on a malfunctioning space heater. Housing advocates say the real issue is the lack of safe, affordable public housing, citing lack of heat provided by the building during subzero winter temperatures and poor fire safety systems. Tenants and activists note one of the building’s co-owners is a member of Mayor Eric Adams’s transition team, and are demanding an extension to the eviction moratorium set to expire on January 15. “All of them are really asking for accountability, not just from the state and city agencies but first and foremost from their landlord and the building owners,” says reporter Claudia Irizarry Aponte, who covers the Bronx for the nonprofit newsroom The City.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Here in New York at a vigil Tuesday night, people mourned the 17 victims of a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx, the city’s deadliest fire in decades.

VIGILERS: [singing]

AMY GOODMAN: Officials have now released the names of the 17 people who died in Sunday’s deadly fire in the 19-story apartment building in the Bronx. They range in age from 2 to 50 years old. Some came from the same families. All of them died from smoke inhalation. Many were immigrants from West Africa and part of the local Muslim community. A nearby mosque and the Gambian Youth Organization are gathering support for families of the dead and the survivors.

Investigators say Sunday’s fire began when an electric space heater malfunctioned and that victims suffered from severe smoke inhalation after a pair of open doors allowed smoke to spread throughout the building. The building acted as a kind of chimney. City records show tenants of the Twin Parks tower had complained about a lack of heat in the building and doors that didn’t close automatically, as required by law. The building did not have fire escapes or sprinklers, and many people were trapped in upper floors, where self-closing doors were supposed to have blocked toxic smoke and flames from spreading.

The new New York City mayor, Eric Adams, spoke outside the Bronx building Monday.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: And if we take one message from this, that the Commissioner Nigro has mentioned several times, close the door. Close the door. That was embedded in my head as a child watching the commercials over and over again. We’re going to double down on that message. My conversation with the chancellor this morning, we’re going to send out communications to all of our schools and state that we want our children to receive the same level of reinforcement. Muscle memory is everything. And if we can drill that in, we can save lives by closing the doors, not only in the city but across the entire globe. This painful moment can turn into a purposeful moment as we send the right message of something simple as closing the door.

AMY GOODMAN: Housing activists say the real responsibility for saving lives lies with city agencies like Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD, that are charged with enforcing building safety codes. Democracy Now! spoke with the director of CASA — that’s Community Action for Safe Apartments — Pablo Estupiñan, on Tuesday.

PABLO ESTUPIÑAN: As an organizer in the Southwest Bronx for the last eight years and working with thousands of tenants over countless buildings who have all experienced these issues, as well not having heat or getting repairs, being harassed, living without gas, I have to say that I’m really shocked and astonished that the city leadership would blame tenants, that they would say that fire doors — closing the doors is enough and that people shouldn’t have had space heaters. That kind of response neglects any responsibility or accountability on city agencies like HPD or the Department of Buildings, DOB, and their lack of code enforcement.

So, you know, our experience is that tenants will go in buildings, living with these conditions or lack of heat for months, for years on end, and there is never any meaningful action taken by the city. The only time that we — the times that we are successful in getting landlords to change the conditions in their buildings often comes through legal action, through tenants organizing together and filing joint group Housing Part cases in housing court to get repairs. And even after a judge’s order, we have seen buildings where HPD will still refuse to come in and make repairs or hold the landlord accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s CASA Director Pablo Estupiñan. The building where Sunday’s fire took place is owned by an investment group whose co-founder, Rick Gropper, served on Mayor Eric Adams’ transition team as a housing adviser.

For more, we’re joined by reporter Claudia Irizarry Aponte, who covers the Bronx for the New York-based outlet The City and has been closely following the story, her latest articles headlined “Self-Closing Door Law Failed to Save Bronx Fire Victims” and “Deadly Bronx Blaze Prompts Scrutiny of Open Door That Spread Smoke.”

We welcome you to Democracy Now! And by the way, congratulations on the announcement that you’ve just received the Ida B. Wells Award honoring exceptional coverage of communities of color from the Newswomen’s Club of New York. And I think that goes directly to your superb reporting on this issue. We hear the mayor and the governor. We hear them talking about the space heater — well, why was it so cold that space heaters were needed? — and tenants leaving open open doors. They’re supposed to be automatically closing, is that not right, Claudia? Talk about what you found.

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: That’s right, Amy and Juan. Good morning, and thank you for having me.

So, there are two things that may have contributed to the fire. Of course there’s the issue of the malfunctioning space heater and the fact that the door of the apartment where the fire originated, the third- and second-floor duplex apartment, did not close properly, allowing for the smoke to spread more quickly.

But, of course, that begs the question of why these tenants were using a space heater in the first place and why the building was not warm enough. Certainly, from the tenants that I have spoken with — I’ve been on the site every day since Sunday — that is the top question on these tenants’ minds. You know, I have heard from tenants who say that — I’ve heard from multiple tenants who say that they also use space heaters because they did not find that their apartments were warm enough, that they claim that their windows were not insulated, and on very cold days they would actually get frost on the interior part of their windows.

Of course, this is not an old building by New York City infrastructure standards. It’s about 50 years old. It was built in the 1970s, in fact, as a model of affordable housing in the city, receiving federal and state funds to subsidize housing. But certainly, in a lot of these buildings, you know, if tenants are not able to control the temperature in their own apartments, they don’t have thermostats, that is all up to the building management. And for a lot of these tenants, many of whom are seniors, children, multigenerational families living within the same household, you know, they had to resort to using ovens to stay warm. They had to resort to using space heaters to stay warm. And unfortunately, you know, when these tools malfunction, you get fires like the one we saw on Sunday. So, a lot of the tenants that I have spoken to — in fact, all of them — are really asking for accountability, not just from the state and city agencies but first and foremost from their landlord and the building owners.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Claudia, this whole issue of — obviously, this building did not have fire escapes or sprinklers, because, supposedly, these more modern — relatively, as you say, modern — buildings are supposed to be, to some extent, fireproof and have at least double staircases for exiting in case fires occur. What’s your sense, because most of the people died not — of smoke inhalation? Could you talk about what caused the deaths?

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: So, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that, unfortunately, most of the victims did die from smoke inhalation. We don’t know much detail about where exactly the victims were found. All we do know is that in terms of the people who are in fact still injured and, to use Commissioner Nigro’s own words, fighting for their lives in city hospitals, did suffer injuries from smoke inhalation, from the people who have died so far. Also the majority of them from smoke inhalation were found in the apartment hallways and stairwells. One could imagine that is because they were trying to escape, and unfortunately the smoke was too dense. I have heard that, as well, from tenants who managed to escape or were rescued by firefighters, that the smoke became too dense, and they couldn’t see. I spoke to an elderly man who actually passed out from smoke. Fortunately, he was OK when I spoke to him on Sunday at the gathering place for tenants. He tried to escape, and it triggered an asthma attack. He passed out. But he was in good spirits and OK when I spoke to him on Sunday night.

And, of course, the building does not have, like, the fire escapes that you generally see, like in brownstones or on five-story buildings across New York, that run on the outside of the building. Fire officials did say that there are stairwells, interior stairwells, for tenants to escape from in case of emergency. But, you know, the issue is that the door of the apartment that was on fire did not close properly, as required by law. That allowed the smoke to spread quickly and create, as Amy said, this, like, chimney effect throughout that entire area of the building all the way to the top floor, the 19th floor. And, unfortunately, that caused a lot of the injury and death that we saw with this fire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what can you tell us about the owner, this Rick Gropper? And how many buildings does he or his investment group own across the city? And has he made public statements, as well?

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: So, Camber Property Group, which is one of the co-owners of this building — and to keep in mind, there’s a consortium of property managers and affordable housing providers that took ownership of this building about two years ago. This building also receives funding through the state Mitchell-Lama housing program, which subsidizes affordable apartments, as well as Section 8 housing, which is, of course, the federal housing program. And so, Camber Property Group is an affordable housing provider in the city. They own or manage well over a hundred buildings in New York. They also have contracts for the public-private ownership or management program with NYCHA, New York City public housing, called the RAD program. They operate several public housing buildings in the Bronx and across the city through that program.

And so, Rick Gropper is the founder of Camber Property Group. He is also, as you mentioned, a part of Mayor Eric Adams’ transitional team, you know, advising him on housing. It is unclear, at least to this reporter, to the extent of, like, how he advised the mayor on housing, whether the mayor is still liaising with him or, you know, talked with him about that issue specifically. Obviously they are in contact right now, responding to this fire.

But it really does beg the question, especially when you hear of the mayor, in his public response, speaking over and over again — you know, I’ve heard a ton of tenants say that they’ve been actually quite disappointed with the mayor’s messaging, you know, speaking, rightfully so, about the importance of closing the door behind you and to be careful with the use of space heaters, but, of course, many tenants feel, “Well, we wouldn’t be using the space heaters if the building was warm enough. And the door didn’t close properly, as required by law. Well, the city agencies and the landlord should have made sure that the doors close properly.” So, certainly, you know, a lot of frustration and anger from a lot of tenants, and certainly even some housing advocates and, frankly, New Yorkers, who have been responding to and reading about this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia, in addition, some of the survivors were talking about how they didn’t initially try to get out, because so many times there were false alarms. They were used to these alarms going off on a regular basis. And that also takes us to Philadelphia, where 12 people died last Wednesday, including nine children, in Philadelphia’s deadliest fire in over a century, the blaze killing three adult sisters, nine of their children, occurring in a row house owned by Philadelphia Housing Authority. Authorities now say 14 people were inside the building when the fire began, that none of the building’s four smoke detectors went off when it started, investigators believing the fire began when a 5-year-old accidentally lit a Christmas tree on fire. So, this issue and the number of people now who lose their homes — what happens to them? — especially as you have this latest development yesterday, protesters blocking the steps of the New York state Capitol in Albany, demanding Governor Kathy Hochul extend the eviction moratorium, which expires, ironically, on Friday. That’s January 15th. January 15th is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. This is Tenants & Neighbors Executive Director Genesis Aquino.

GENESIS AQUINO: What I have learned over the years is that greedy landlords are willing to do anything to get a profit. They say tenants are disposable, so that’s why they’re willing to evict whenever they want, without cause. And the main reason they do that is because they can get away with murder. That’s what we saw this weekend in the Bronx with the fire, all the families that died due to negligence. The landlord couldn’t just evict them, so he killed them. But we are here today putting our bodies on the line during this weather because we know we are not disposable.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the eviction moratorium ends on January 15th. The significance of this, and what happens to these people?

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: Right. That’s absolutely right. Certainly, housing issues and tenants’ rights are front of mind for New Yorkers right now with both of these issues just happening at the same time. Well, as you said, there were activists yesterday at this Albany state Capitol, you know, sitting in and fighting for the “good cause eviction” bill, which would grant relief to some tenants when the eviction moratorium expires on the 15th.

As far as the tenants in this Bronx building, you know, they are in for a very long, painful road ahead of them. Unfortunately, fires in New York are not at all uncommon, especially in communities like the Bronx. I have covered several other residential fires. From my experience, it has taken tenants up to a year to find stable permanent housing again, especially in the case of tenants, like the ones at the Twin Parks building, who have Section 8 vouchers and, of course, require placement in other Section 8 properties, which, as we know, are few and far between.

As far as what’s next in the short term for these tenants, their building owner, their landlord, is actually paying them to stay in hotels for the next two weeks. Several city agencies, housing advocates and even some attorneys, some public defenders, are helping them not only gather a case, potentially, against their landlord, but also helping them find housing and being placed in either Section 8 housing or any other affordable housing in the interim. Unfortunately, after the two weeks of them staying in the hotel expires, those who do not have an apartment to stay in, whether by themselves or with their families, have been offered to stay in city homeless shelters, which, of course, has been very concerning for many of the tenants that I have spoken with. They’re very scared of going to a homeless shelter with COVID cases on the rise across New York City. So, again, they’re in for a very long, painful road ahead of them, for their part. Congressman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood, said that he is going to do everything in his power to make sure that those residents who have Section 8 vouchers are located in similar Section 8 housing as quickly as possible, as well as other city lawmakers have made the same promises.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Also, the Bronx tower owners have been hit with a $3 billion class-action lawsuit over this fire that killed 17 people. Claudia Irizarry Aponte, I thank you so much for being with us, a reporter covering the Bronx for the New York-based outlet The City. We’ll link to your stories.

Next up, we look at the fight in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, to stop a new gas-fired power plant. Stay with us.

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