An apartment fire broke out on Sunday in the Bronx and killed 17 people, including nine children younger than 16. It was the deadliest New York fire in more than three decades. Initial reports indicate that the fire was caused by a malfunctioning space heater—which demonstrates how energy efficiency upgrades to apartments aren’t just a climate issue, but an urgent justice issue.
Officials said that they believe the heat in the Twin Parks West building was working on January 9, when the fire started in the late morning, but the space heater was being used to provide extra heat in one apartment. While the fire itself—which started in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors, spread only to the next door unit—the black smoke quickly filled the building, which lacked outside exits; residents broke windows to breathe as they became covered in soot. Rescuers said they found people in need of help on every floor of the 19-story building, including many in cardiac and respiratory arrest. In addition to the deaths, more than 60 people were injured and 13 were hospitalized.
“I had no choice,” resident Anthony Romero, 40, told the New York Daily News of his decision to stay in his 12th floor apartment with his pregnant wife and two children, despite being asthmatic. “There was too much smoke in the hallways, there was no way I was gonna leave my apartment and make it from the 12th floor to the first floor and live.”
There are some key fire safety issues that made the fire at Twin Parks West so devastating, including internal stairwells that clogged with smoke and doors that didn’t close adequately and allowed smoke to spread. But the cause of the fire itself—a resident having to run a space heater on a cold, but not freezing, day in January—also cannot be overlooked. Residents living in public and affordable housing have had to turn to space heaters and even gas stoves as sources of warmth in the winter, raising the risk of indoor air pollution, fire hazards, and increased carbon pollution.
More than 70% of New York’s carbon emissions are related to buildings. Increasing efficiency can go a long way to slashing emissions—while also potentially preventing disasters like what happened this week and helping make people’s lives more comfortable.
Research has shown that lower-income households across the U.S. spend up to four times as much on utilities as wealthier ones, due mostly to inefficient systems in cheaper, historically disadvantaged housing. Among the culprits are energy-guzzling appliances, outdated heating and cooling systems, and poorly-insulated buildings. Those figures, importantly, also split along lines of race; Black, Indigenous, and Latino families spend much more than their white counterparts, partly a result of decades of unfair housing practices.
The Twin Parks complex was designed and built in the 1970s; half of the nation’s apartments were built before 1980, before the advent of many modern techniques to improve efficiency and insulation. Many of those buildings also rely on outdated heating systems. Sometimes, those systems stop working altogether. Residents of Twin Parks West’s sister building, Twin Parks East, told news outlets last year that the heat had been out in their building for months.
“To hear from initial reports that a faulty space heater is the cause of such a large fire is horrifying and unacceptable,” Taylor Morton, the director of environmental health and education for New York City-based WE ACT on Environmental Justice, said in an email. “New Yorkers deserve adequate and efficient heat in the wintertime, and this event proves that outdated infrastructure can not only impact our quality of life, but can be deadly.”
New York is slowly starting to tackle the issue. The New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest public housing authority, created a plan in 2020 to electrify all its buildings by 2050. Last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $24 million in funding for an energy efficiency pilot program to upgrade affordable housing in the city. The city’s recently passed ban on natural gas hookups in new buildings will guarantee that any future public housing will be all-electric. (Perhaps this tragedy could convince Twin Parks West’s powerful owners to prioritize the issue with new Mayor Eric Adams’ administration: The head of one of the three firms that owns the building sat on Adams’ housing transition team.)
There are policy proposals at the national level, ranging from the Green New Deal for Public Housing to the Homes for All Act. Together, they would plunge trillions of dollars into addressing the backlog of repairs and doing new retrofits for inadequate existing housing and the construction of new affordable housing units. These types of major public investments would create jobs and ensure that people have safe, comfortable places to live. They could also help lower utility bills (a 2020 analysis found efficiency upgrades would save every household hundreds of dollars annually), saving that could help close the wealth gap.
“We must protect our low-income communities, and communities of color from outdated infrastructure by committing to affordable retrofitting and equitable energy policies that are aimed at preventing events like these from happening again,” Morton said.
Update, 1/1/21, 3:08 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to reflect the revised death toll of 17.