Firefighters in the Bronx respond to the Twin Parks North West fire, January 9, 2022 (CNS photo/Lloyd Mitchell, Reuters).

By all accounts Twin Parks North West in the Bronx was an unusually vibrant community, a small village within an affordable-housing high rise, home to a tightly knit Gambian community and tenants from elsewhere in West Africa and Latin America. That’s in part what made the January fire that killed seventeen residents especially tragic. That, and the sense that it didn’t need to happen.

The details are by now well-known: a space-heater left running over several days malfunctioned and set a third-floor unit on fire. As the tenants fled, a door that was supposed to close automatically remained open. Smoke poured from the apartment and into a stairwell, where it was sucked upward in a chimney-like effect because of another open door twelve floors higher. New York Mayor Eric Adams, just days into his new job, made the unfortunate misstep of appearing to blame the victims when he said the key lesson to take from the fire was: “Close the door.” In fact, what the disaster made clear are the flaws in the larger affordable- and low-income housing system, a problem that extends beyond the borders of New York. More and more, large real-estate companies around the country have found there’s money to be made in buying affordable-housing properties, given the demand for low-cost apartments that tenants can use rental vouchers to pay for. And many of these companies tend to prioritize profit over the kinds of maintenance and repairs needed to keep buildings safely habitable.  

Many of these companies tend to prioritize profit over the kinds of maintenance and repairs needed to keep buildings safely habitable.  

Yet it’s in the Bronx where the downsides of this system often come most clearly into relief. The high price of New York real estate gives investor landlords even greater incentive to maximize net operating income at the expense of tenants in affordable-housing units. According to a 2020 Community Service Society report, ballooning property values have spurred owners to refinance their properties in the belief that values, along with rents, will only continue to climb. And in regularly assuming larger debt, they’re even less inclined (or unable) to stay on top of fixes. Thus doors that are supposed to swing closed to stop the spread of fire and smoke remain open, in spite of repeated requests for repairs. Thus insufficient heating leaves a building so cold in early January that a family is forced to run a space heater continuously over several days.

Ritchie Torres, the Democratic congressman in whose district Twin Parks North West is located, has introduced legislation mandating self-closing doors in all federally funded housing and automatic shutoff on space heaters. Meanwhile, the outpouring of support for the residents of Twin Parks North West has been so generous that some relief organizations can no longer accept more supplies and are taking only financial contributions. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these come as welcome developments. But they don’t address the underlying causes that still leave thousands of other people in similarly precarious situations. The continuing pandemic only worsens the problem. As Eileen Markey writes in the New Republic, landlords are “faced with declining buildings they can’t afford to maintain and investors they are obliged to serve,” while tenants face the end of an eviction moratorium and an uncertain future, at the mercy of a system that sees housing as an investment opportunity rather than a basic human right.

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the February 2022 issue: View Contents
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