After deadly Bronx fire, architecture workers demand housing justice
The five-alarm fire that engulfed the Twin Parks North West skyscraper in the Bronx on Jan. 9 was New York’s deadliest in decades, killing 17 people, including eight children, and injuring at least 63. Fire department officials said a faulty electric heater in a bedroom on the building’s third floor started the blaze. Portable devices, a common recourse for tenants in poorly heated buildings, are responsible for 21,000 home fires and more than 300 deaths across the country each year, according to data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In a petition launched this week, local advocacy group Architecture Lobby NYC called for criminal action against the owners of the building, condemning the fire “not as an accident but as an inevitable consequence of the way people of the working class are mistreated in a system that puts profits before people.
“The radiator that caught fire would not have been needed had the owners provided adequate heat as required by law,” the group wrote. “They didn’t do it because it was cheaper not to do it. It costs less to put human life at risk than to provide the decent and safe living conditions to which tenants are legally and morally entitled as human beings.
The Architecture Lobby, representing architects, designers and urban planners, was founded in 2013 and has 16 chapters and 450 members across the United States. Its New York chapter has about 100 members.
The high death toll from the fire was likely due to exacerbated smoke inhalation when the door to the unit it came from did not close automatically – a feature required by law – when the tenants fled, allowing toxic plumes to spread further. In in recent weeks, residents of the Bronx and beyond have amplified calls for hold owners and law enforcement agencies accountable for substandard housing.
The recent petition is addressed to newly sworn-in Mayor Eric Adams and other lawmakers who are considering new legislation in the wake of the tragedy. A proposed bill would require federally subsidized housing like Twin Parks to be equipped with heat sensors that alert housing authorities when temperatures fall below legal limits.
Architecture Lobby has made a number of demands for the city, including hiring more building inspectors and speeding up penalties and prosecutions for homeowners with long-standing violations.
The 19-story apartment complex, located at 333 East 181st Street, is jointly owned by LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group, three companies with multi-billion stakes in the real estate market. In 2019, they bought Twin Parks North West along with seven other affordable housing buildings in the Bronx for $166 million, pledging to protect them for “families in need.” But a report from Washington Post found that while landlords enriched themselves on government grants, Twin Parks racked up code violations that put tenants at risk.
LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group did not respond to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment. A spokesperson for the companies told the New York Times that all doors in the building had self-closing mechanisms and attributed the false fire alarms to residents smoking in the hallways.
Two survivors of the Twin Parks fire have since sued the owners, citing poor heating and faulty doors as well as frequent false fire alarms that went off randomly during the day.
“As architects and designers, we know all too well where the real estate money really goes,” the Architecture Lobby petition added. “It’s not about ensuring safety, since there is no return on this ‘investment’. It goes to buildings that generate more profit.
“Gentrification and a worsening housing crisis leave tenants with few options to find safer housing,” the group continued. “As design professionals, we know that as long as profit-based priorities dominate the built environment, people’s lives will be at risk, especially people of color, immigrants, and marginalized communities.”