Twin Parks in the Bronx, New York, where a space heater caused a five-alarm fire last month (courtesy New York Fire Department)

The five-alarm fire that engulfed the Twin Parks North West high-rise in the Bronx on January 9 was the deadliest in New York City in decades, killing 17 people, including eight children, and injuring at least 63. Fire Department officials said a malfunctioning electric space heater in a bedroom on the building’s third floor sparked the blaze. The portable devices, a common recourse for tenants in buildings with inadequate heating, account for 21,000 house fires and over 300 deaths across the country every year, according to data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In a petition launched this week, the local advocacy group Architecture Lobby NYC called for the owners of the building to be criminally prosecuted, condemning the fire “not as an accident but as an inevitable consequence of how working-class people are abused in a system that puts profits before people.”

“The space heater that caught fire wouldn’t have been necessary if the owners had provided adequate heat as required by law,” the group wrote. “They didn’t because it was cheaper not to. Cheaper to put human life at risk than provide the decent, safe living conditions the tenants are entitled to legally, and morally as human beings.”

The Architecture Lobby, representing architectural workers, designers, and urban planners, was founded in 2013 and has 16 chapters and 450 members across the United States. Its New York chapter has around 100 members.

The high death toll of the fire was likely due to smoke inhalation exacerbated when the door to the unit where it originated did not close automatically — a feature required by law — as tenants fled, allowing the toxic plumes to spread further. In recent weeks, residents of the Bronx and beyond have amplified calls to hold landlords and enforcement agencies accountable for substandard housing.

The recent petition is addressed to recently inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams and other lawmakers considering new legislation in the wake of the tragedy. One proposed bill would require federally subsidized housing like Twin Parks to have heat sensors that alert housing authorities when temperatures fall below legal limits.

Architecture Lobby outlined a number of demands for the city, including hiring more building inspectors and expediting penalties and prosecution for landlords with long-standing violations.

The 19-story apartment complex, located at 333 East 181st Street, is jointly owned by LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners, and Camber Property Group — three companies with a multi-billion stake in the real estate market. In 2019, they purchased Twin Parks North West as well as seven other affordable housing buildings in the Bronx for $166 million, pledging to protect them for “the families that need them.” But a report by the Washington Post found that while the landlords got wealthy off the government subsidies, Twin Parks was racking up code violations that put tenants in danger.

Two survivors of the Twin Parks fire have since filed a lawsuit against the owners, citing poor heating and malfunctioning doors as well as frequent false fire alarms that went off randomly during the day.

A spokesperson for LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners, and Camber Property Group told the New York Times that all the building’s doors had self-closing mechanisms and attributed the false fire alarms to residents smoking in the hallways.

“As architects and design workers, we know all too well where the money in real estate really goes,” Architecture Lobby’s petition added. “It doesn’t go to providing safety, since there’s no return on that ‘investment.’ It goes to buildings that generate more profit.”

“Gentrification and the deepening housing crisis give renters few options for finding safer housing,” the group continued. “As design professionals, we know that as long as profit-based priorities dominate the built environment, people’s lives will be at risk, especially people of color, immigrants, and marginalized communities.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...