At the end of the first week in January, a symbolic time of new beginnings and future plans, seventeen people died from inhaling smoke in their home, a nineteen-story apartment building in the West Bronx. Eight of them were children; one was two years old. A space heater in a third-floor apartment started the fire. When the residents of the apartment fled, their front door stayed open, despite having an automatic closing mechanism, which city regulations require. Other residents said that their doors also did not self-close—and, as the fire spread, the smoke filled the stairways and suffocated people trying to escape. More than sixty people were injured, and fifteen remained in critical condition last week. Nearly all of the people who died, and many others who live in the tower, part of the Twin Parks North West complex, are of Gambian descent. (There are also Latino and Black American residents of the building.) They passed time together, and went to a mosque a couple blocks away, and treated one another like family.
And, as renters in New York City, they expected basic services: heat, hot water, functioning exits in case of disaster. What they found instead was life in a fifty-year-old building, once a model of affordable housing, that had more than two hundred complaints and violation notices since 2010, about rodent infestations, lead paint, mold, and safety doors that didn’t work. (A spokesperson for the building’s current owners—three real-estate investment firms that purchased it two years ago, and have benefitted from government-provided low-interest loans—said that the violations had been resolved; records show that, at the time of the fire, seventeen violations were still open.) What many immigrants receive, instead of safe and affordable housing, is the sentiment that they should be grateful—to be in this country, in New York. What the Twin Parks residents experienced, on January 9th, were apartments so cold that a family needed to keep a space heater running for several days near a child’s bed, and then a fire so devastating that the community is not sure how it will recover.
“This is really traumatizing,” Momodou Sawaneh, the founder of the Gambian Youth Organization, which is coördinating a relief effort for the victims and their families, told me. “This is bad. We knew people who lived in that building, and they are part of us. If they were here, they would be volunteering, they would be working with us, teen-agers, kids.” When city leaders, including Eric Adams, the new Mayor, heard the news, they expressed a collective grief. “When there is a crisis in this city or state, we are in this together,” Adams said. “And we won’t succeed if we’re not united.” The Mayor’s office set up a Bronx Fire Relief Fund, which has received more than two and a half million dollars in donations from the public, but over time Adams’s response swiftly shifted to one of personal responsibility. “If we take one message from this,” he said last week, it’s to “close the door, close the door.” News outlets later reported that Rick Gropper, a co-founder and principal of Camber Property Group, one of the firms that own the building, and the company responsible for its day-to-day operations, was a campaign donor to Adams and served as housing adviser on his transition team.
The precariousness of life in New York for working-class immigrants reminds me of when I lived in Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity. When I was writing about Lagos, in 2015, at least a hundred and thirty-five buildings had collapsed in the previous seven years, apartment complexes and schools among them. Developers were constructing buildings cheaply and quickly to meet the demand from new arrivals in the city, who couldn’t afford better housing, although they paid a high percentage of their wages in rent. A Lagos State official told me, “We have the most expensive slums in the world.”
According to a 2019 report from the Mayor’s office, nearly a quarter of the city households considered “energy cost burdened”—families that spend more than six per cent of their income on utility bills—lived in the Bronx. Low-income New Yorkers often face higher energy costs due to poor insulation and outdated heating systems in their buildings. Some use multiple space heaters, which consume a great deal of energy.
The tragedy of the Bronx fire evoked that of thirteen New Yorkers, most of them in Queens, who died late last summer, during Hurricane Ida, when heavy rainfall drowned them in their homes. Eleven of those victims were living in basement apartments, nearly all of which were illegally rented out by landlords. Illegal basement apartments usually have only one way to get in and out, do not have windows, have low ceilings, and are easily flooded. They are also often overcrowded—the people who live in them tend to be working-class immigrants. Most of the people who died in Queens were of Asian descent; others were Caribbean. According to the Times, there are likely tens of thousands of such apartments in the city, which seem to go largely unnoticed by local officials. The budget for a pilot city program launched in 2019, to upgrade basement apartments to livable spaces, was cut in 2020, for pandemic-related reasons, from about twelve million dollars, in the course of three years, to just ninety-one thousand dollars.
“Housing has been an ongoing problem that has worsened during COVID,” Lina Lee, who leads the tenant-advocacy organization Communities Resist, told me. “Asian American immigrants have the highest rate of poverty in New York City.” But basement apartments in “horrendous conditions” can have rents of close to a thousand dollars a month. In the absence of better and more accessible housing options, residents of such apartments face a dilemma: if they complain to the city about violations, they may receive a vacate order, and, if their apartments are legally rented, they may possibly move to temporary public housing. But, if they are renting an illegal space, a vacate order means that they have to find somewhere else to live without assistance.
“This is a wake-up call,” Sawaneh, of the Gambian Youth Organization, said of the Twin Parks tower fire. “One thing we need to do now is to sensitize our people.” In the absence of real accountability from building management or the city, he said that he and other community leaders explain to people what to do in case of a fire, the dangers of space heaters, and the benefits of renting safer housing instead of putting themselves at risk in order to build up their savings. A couple who survived the fire filed a class-action lawsuit, on behalf of Twin Parks residents, seeking three billion dollars in damages against the building’s owners, blaming them for not maintaining the building or attending to reports of unsafe conditions. (The consortium of owners said that it is coöperating with an investigation by the Fire Department.) Last Saturday, the day before a mass funeral for the victims, at the Islamic Culture Center, in the Bronx, Sheikh Musa Drammeh, a Gambian activist, spoke to relatives of the victims and community members who were planning the service. “The system does not recognize our value,” Drammeh told them. “It is not a normal funeral.”