The councilman representing the Bronx victims of this month’s deadly Twin Parks fire is promising to overhaul New York’s fire safety laws while demanding landlords provide more heat to tenants in frigid weather.
Councilor Oswald Feliz, a former tenants’ attorney, has been named head of the Twin Parks Task Force on Fire Prevention, a newly created special committee announced by the city council on Thursday.
But as he promises to reshape the city’s approach to fire safety, experts say Feliz could be pushed back by New York’s real estate lobby, whose cost concerns could see some key proposals watered down.
“The committee will have one purpose: to make sure what we saw two Sundays ago never happens again, in the Bronx or anywhere in our city,” said Feliz, who won a special election for the seat last spring, to WNYC/Gothamist. “I am confident that all those affected will put the interests of our tenants first.”
Officials said the fire, which killed 17 people, was started by a faulty space heater. The historic death toll came as smoke billowed through two doors that failed to close on their own, as required by a 2018 City Council law passed by Feliz’s predecessor, Ritchie Torres.
Under one proposal, Feliz said he would increase heating needs for homes if the temperature falls below freezing – from the current minimum threshold of 68 degrees during the day and 62 degrees overnight.
The goal would be to eliminate the use of hazardous space heaters, which the US Consumer Product Safety Commission says are responsible for 80% of heat-related fire deaths, including several of the deadliest fires in the Bronx.
Another proposal from Feliz calls for higher fines for landlords who don’t maintain self-closing doors and calls for the city to conduct more regular inspections.
“The smoke flooded the building within seconds,” Feliz said. “The self-closing door law is intended to prevent exactly that.”
Jim Bullock, a retired deputy chief of the FDNY who now heads the NY Fire Safety Institute, reiterated the need for the city to improve oversight of its fire safety code.
While landlords are required to maintain self-closing doors, there’s no city statute that requires them to conduct inspections on the doors to make sure they’re working — something Bullock said could be changed with a sentence added to the law’s text.
However, other security reforms may prove more difficult to implement. Fire safety experts say sprinkler systems are one of the most effective ways to stop a flame from spreading. But efforts to make these sprinklers mandatory in older buildings have long been opposed by the real estate industry.
In 1999, after two fires killed seven people, the city council scrapped a bill that would require sprinklers in all buildings and opted for a more limited mandate for new construction after opposition from real estate prospects, Bullock said.
When similar legislation was introduced in 2017 after the Grenfell Tower fire in London, it faced renewed opposition from property managers and the New York Real Estate Committee, according to testimonies presented to City Council.
A REBNY spokesman, Sam Spokony, said the group’s position on the sprinkler law had not changed, but added: “It is vitally important to prioritize the safety of residents and we are committed to working with elected officials from federal, countries and cities to work on proposals for progress towards this goal.”
Feliz said he was “looking into” introducing a bill that would require sprinklers in all buildings and planned to meet with FDNY executives to discuss the idea in the coming weeks.
Asked if he thinks the recent tragedy could lead lawmakers to allay the real estate industry’s concerns about sprinklers, Bullock replied, “They’ve never opposed them.”