The panel heard testimony about the Jan. 9 blaze that killed 17 residents as it seeks to improve fire safety in federally assisted housing
Sandra Clayton, a 26-year resident of the Twin Parks North West apartments in the Bronx, wasn’t alarmed by the commotion on the morning of Jan. 9. Then she heard the screams and saw the thick, black smoke pouring in from under her door. Clayton recounted her experience that day – in which 17 people died in a fire inside her building – at a hearing on April 20 of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services at Bronx Community College. Clayton lost her dog, Mocha, in the blaze, suffered a leg injury, and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The House panel held the hearing to explore how to improve fire safety in federally assisted housing. Also attending the hearing were Adolfo Carrion, a commissioner for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development; Laura Kavanagh, commissioner of the New York Fire Department; and RuthAnne Visnauskas, chief executive officer and commissioner of the New York State Home and Community Renewal.
Two panels of guests and elected officials from other states spoke before the committee to discuss why low-income New Yorkers depend on portable heaters, and what role agencies play in ensuring the protection of public housing residents.
Clayton said she and all of her neighbors kept space heaters in their apartments to stay warm. She continues to live in the complex, in another apartment, while making a few adjustments to her routines.
“I sleep with my door unlocked and put my clothes for the next day by my bed, just in case I need to run out of the apartment,” Clayton said. “I hope I will be able to get over this over time, but right now I am constantly worried. I will always remember that smell. They tried to cover it up, but I will never forget.”
Representative Ritchie Torres, a member of the committee whose 15th congressional district includes the South Bronx, challenged the guest speakers on several inconsistencies during the hearing and received many approving nods from the audience. Torres observed that there was no automatic coordination between state and city agencies, and recommended that the attending leaders review their system for better results. He also noted that New York City’s Heat Law only required that an apartment be kept at 62 degrees at night, regardless of the outdoor temperature, which Commissioner Carrion recognized as an issue. At the daytime, the law requires the temperature to be below 55 degrees outside for the heat to be regulated in apartment units, which becomes an issue if the temperature drops later.
Carrion said that most of the 620,000 violations that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development reported in 2021 were heat-related and that the department received 500,000 complaints that same year. However, despite the agency’s records saying otherwise, Commissioner Visnauskas later said that her department received no heat-related complaints in the Twin Parks building and that there seemed to be “a disconnect” between the residents’ lived experience and the inspection reports.
“Why is it that it is only once a year that apartments are inspected? Personally, I think they should be inspected at least three times a year,” said Clayton.
The New York Fire Department currently has 300 fire protection inspectors, who are in charge of examining smoke detectors, fire exits, life safety kits, and any potential source of fire hazards. Commissioner Kavanagh said that 200,000 smoke alarms were distributed or installed between 2013 and 2021 and that 2,100 fire safety presentations were conducted last year. 610 were in the Bronx, which accounts for 28 percent of all presentations.
In March, Mayor Eric Adams signed Executive Order 12, which requires an extensive educational campaign on fire safety and stronger sanctions against landlords who don’t comply with city regulations. Since the fire, the FDNY scheduled 900
presentations in collaboration with the New York City Police Department, the American Red Cross, and the NYC Department of Education.
“January 9th was the kind of day that stays with first responders for the rest of their careers,” Kavanagh said. “Nobody that was involved that day will ever forget the devastation and the loss. Our obligation to those we have lost is to recommit ourselves to find a way to better protect the lives of people in New York City.”
During the hearing, Borough president Gibson encouraged lawmakers to pass two bills introduced by Ritchie Torres in January: the H.R.6529, which requires public housing owners to install self-closing doors, and the Housing Temperature Safety Act of 2022, which requires the installation of temperature sensors. She said that the road for recovery has been “long and arduous” for Twin Parks residents and that better access to public housing along with an increased budget could help prevent future tragedies.
“There was a lack of attention and accountability in addressing long-standing violations, and a lack of priority and investment for necessary repairs. This fire, as well as many others citywide, could have been prevented,” said Gibson.