The deadly fire in a Bronx apartment building was the second such tragedy in low-income housing in the United States this month, highlighting the persistent link between poverty and residential fire deaths.
"This is not to say that poverty invariably leads to fires," said Birgitte Messerschmidt, research director at the National Fire Protection Association. "However, there is an undeniable link between socioeconomic status and fire."
Despite decades of research and political promises to address the issue, areas with a higher concentration of low-income people continue to see an increase in fire deaths. According to an NFPA analysis, the states with the highest fire death rates between 2015 and 2019 also had the highest percentages of their populations living in poverty. In 2012, death rates from smoke exposure were five times higher in counties with at least 20% of the population living below the poverty line than in counties with less than 5% living below the poverty line.
According to a July report from the NFPA, states with a larger Indigenous or Black population, more smokers, or a higher number of rural residents have higher fire death rates.
"It's just disgraceful that we're in 2022 and your income has a significant impact on your fire risk," said Andrew Duffy, a catastrophic personal injury attorney. "We can't live in a society where the amount of money you make determines whether or not you'll survive a house fire."
Older, less expensive buildings can be grandfathered into building codes that do not require as many fire safety measures as newer, more expensive buildings. Tenants in public housing also claim that their complaints to management go unanswered. Those with fewer resources are also more likely to live in overcrowded housing, with multiple generations sharing the same space.
According to Jumaane Williams, New York City's public advocate, fires are more common in low-income neighborhoods of color because residents are "looking for the most affordable rent." These are frequently the most neglected communities, and residents either don't know how to file complaints or don't want to for fear of retaliation or inaction, he added.
According to city records, residents at the 19-story apartment building at 333 East 181st Street in the Bronx had complained about a lack of heat, a broken radiator, and a door that didn't close properly in recent months. Officials said the fire appeared to start with a malfunctioning space heater — something tenants use when their apartments aren't properly heated — and that smoke spread due to a malfunctioning door. They claimed that smoke inhalation was to blame for many of the deaths and serious injuries. Following the death of 12 people in a fire in a residential building in 2017, New York City passed legislation requiring all residential buildings to have self-closing doors to limit fire damage.
The building had no working smoke detectors when a fire killed 12 people, including eight children, in Philadelphia earlier this month. Firefighters also discovered that the four-bedroom house had been occupied by 18 people.
While some tenants in the Bronx building spoke out, locals told Bloomberg News that others chose not to after hearing that their neighbors had agitated with no success. Others were concerned about their immigration status or were unable 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,'" says one observer. According to Tisha Hatch, a community organizer. "Others reason, 'I'm not a citizen here, and I don't want to ruffle any feathers, so I'll just play it by ear.'" So they go outside to seek assistance, such as a space heater."
Fire deaths in New York City increased by 16% in 2021 compared to the previous year. Despite having experienced some of the deadliest fires in recent decades, the Bronx trailed Queens and Manhattan in fatalities last year, according to the New York Post.
Two years ago, LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners, and Camber Property Group purchased a portfolio of approximately 1,200 affordable units in the Bronx, 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 through holdings that included Mitchell-Lama affordable housing buildings in New York. Cammeby's did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Camber has also gotten into the business of repairing and operating New York's troubled public housing, in collaboration with L+M Development Partners. The conversion of the Bronx's Baychester Houses was recently completed by the companies. In exchange, the businesses can receive Section 8 housing vouchers, which provide a consistent stream of government-backed income.
"We are heartbroken by the unfathomable loss of life caused by this terrible tragedy." "We are fully cooperating with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate the cause, and we are doing everything we can to assist our residents," Kelly Magee, a representative for the owners, said this week in a statement.