Low-Income Residents Face Higher Risk of Deadly Fires Like New York Apartment Blaze

By Caleb Melby, Fola Akinnibi and Kelsey Butler | January 13, 2022

The deadly blaze in a Bronx apartment building was the second such tragedy at low-income housing in the U.S. this month, highlighting the stubborn link between poverty and deaths from residential fires.

“It’s not to say that poverty conditions invariably lead to fires,” said Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of research at the National Fire Protection Association. “But there is a link between socioeconomic status and fire that cannot be denied.”

Areas with more low-income people continue to see more deaths from fires despite decades of research and political promises to address the issue. States with the highest death rates from fires between 2015 and 2019 also had the largest percentage of populations living in poverty, according to an analysis from NFPA. In 2012, death rates due to smoke exposure were five times higher in counties where at least 20% of the population lived below the poverty line compared to counties where less than 5% of residents lived below the poverty line.

States with larger Indigenous or Black populations, more smokers or a higher number rural residents tend to have higher fire death rates, according to a July report from the NFPA.

“It’s just disgraceful that here we are in 2022 and the amount of money you make seriously impacts your fire risk,” said Andrew Duffy, a catastrophic personal injury attorney. “We can’t live in a society anymore where the amount of money you make dictates whether or not you’ll survive a fire in your home.”

Older buildings with cheaper rents can be grandfathered into building codes that don’t require as many fire safety measures as newer, more expensive buildings. Public housing tenants also say that their complaints to management go unanswered. Those with less means are also more likely to live in crowded housing, with multiple generations sharing the space.

Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, said that fires are more common in low-income neighborhoods of color because those folks are “trying to find the most affordable rent.” These communities are often the most neglected and residents either don’t know how to make those complaints or don’t want to out of fear of retribution or inaction, he added.

Residents at the 19 story apartment building at 333 East 181st Street in the Bronx had complained about lack of heat, a broken radiator and a door that didn’t close properly in recent months, according to city records. Officials said the fire initially appeared to come from a malfunctioning space heater, something tenants turn to when their apartments aren’t properly heated — and that a malfunctioning door allowed smoke to spread. They said that many of the deaths and serious injuries were due to smoke inhalation. After a fire in a residential building killed 12 people in 2017, New York City passed a law mandating all residential buildings have self-closing doors to limit damage from fires.

In a Philadelphia fire earlier this month, where 12 people — including eight children — died, the building had no functioning smoke detectors. Firefighters also discovered that 18 people had been inside the four-bedroom house.

While some tenants of the Bronx building had spoken up, locals told Bloomberg News that others chose not to after hearing neighbors had agitated with no success. Others were worried about immigration status, or didn’t have the ability to do so due to language barriers or work schedules.

“People think, ‘I want to make a complaint, but I’m at work and I’m not supposed to be on the phone,'” Tisha Hatch, a community organizer said. “Other people think, ‘I’m not a citizen here, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, so I’ll just play it by ear.’ So they go and get outside help, something like the space heater.”

Fire deaths in New York City jumped 16% in 2021 from the year before. Though the Bronx has seen some of the deadliest fires in recent decades, it ranked behind Queens and Manhattan in fatalities last year, according to the New York Post.

LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group purchased a portfolio of about 1,200 affordable units in the Bronx two years ago, including the apartments at 333 East 181st Street. The partners paid $166 million — or about $130,000 per apartment — to Cammeby’s International Group, whose owner became a billionaire from holdings that have included buildings in New York’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. Cammeby’s didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Working with L+M Development Partners, Camber has also gotten into the business of fixing and operating New York’s beleaguered public housing. The companies recently completed the conversion of the Bronx’s Baychester Houses. In exchange, the companies can receive Section 8 housing vouchers, which create a steady stream of government-backed income.

“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy. We are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents,” Kelly Magee, a representative for the owners, said in a statement this week.

Photo: A Fire Department of New York (FDNY) ambulance sits outside the emergency room at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx borough of New York, U.S., on Thursday, April 2, 2020. In four months, the new coronavirus infected more than 1 million people and killed more than 51,000. The U.S. accounts for a quarter of the cases. Photographer: David Dee Delgado/Bloomberg

Topics Profit Loss New York

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