At least 17 people are dead, including eight children, after a Bronx apartment building caught fire on Sunday in the deadliest fire in New York City in decades. This comes just days after a fire in an overcrowded Philadelphia rowhouse killed 12.
Socialist Alternative and I send our deepest condolences and solidarity to the families and individuals who have experienced unimaginable losses.
These tenants deserved safe, high-quality, affordable housing. Far from being inevitable, these tragedies — like the 2017 Grenfell building fire in London — are the result of the deep and endemic housing injustice faced by working people and the poor under global capitalism.
The Bronx building, called Twin Parks North West, is home to some of New York City’s poorest working-class residents, many of them African immigrant families relying on Section 8 housing vouchers and rental assistance. A malfunctioning space heater in one of the apartments was the apparent source of the fire. As the family fled, the door to their apartment failed to close, and heavy smoke filled the halls while other residents attempted to escape. That apartment door was supposed to close automatically, per a New York City law passed in 2018 requiring all apartment building doors to be self-closing by July 2021.
Records show that tenants in Twin Parks North West had reported repeatedly over months and years that their apartments had no heat, and that they had faulty radiators and broken ventilation systems. Many residents reported that fire alarms were often heard five or six times per day, so they were often ignored. The building did not have fire escapes or sprinklers — according to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, the building “was potentially built outside the New York City Fire Code.” There were over two dozen violations and complaints filed by residents, including complaints of roaches, rats, and mice, water leaks, and multiple instances of non-functioning elevators. Issues in the building were ongoing despite the previous owners receiving $25 million in state loans for repairs to the building in 2013.
New York Mayor Eric Adams said his major takeaway from the Bronx fire was to “close the door,” which seems to imply that the family of eight who fled for their lives is at fault for not closing a door which should have automatically closed according to New York City law. Mayor Adams has launched an “educational campaign” to teach children to keep doors closed. This obviously absurd and dishonest emphasis in the face of this human tragedy exposes Adams’s actual political agenda. Adams ran for office on a platform that promised to build more overcrowded “micro-units,” and also promised to convert 25,000 hotel rooms into apartments that experts say would not be able to meet zoning or conversion requirements.
The Twin Parks North West building was acquired in 2020 by LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners, and Camber Property Group as part of a $166 million deal for eight rent-regulated buildings in the Bronx. They purchased the building from an international real estate group led by Rubin Schron, a real estate mogul with a net worth of over $3 billion. The co-founders of Camber Property Group are Rick Gropper, a member of NYC Mayor Eric Adams’s transition team for housing issues, and Andrew Moelis, the son of Ron Moelis, a developer of affordable housing and donor to Democrats. Camber Property Group markets itself as a provider of “quality” affordable housing, but rather than making desperately-needed repairs to decades-old buildings like Twin Parks North West, Gropper and Moelis spent over $260 million in 2021 adding affordable housing buildings to their company’s investment portfolio.
Just days before the Bronx fire, Andrew Gerdon from LIHC Investment Group, another of the owners, said nakedly in an interview, “There are very few asset classes with more proven resilience and staying power than affordable housing and competition for deals in the five boroughs remains extremely high.” This is the sickening reality of the capitalist system. The few affordable apartment buildings that still exist in major cities are sold off by corporate politicians (more often than not from the Democratic Party) to rich investors, whose very intention is to maintain the units as cheaply as possible, cutting as many corners as underfunded, weakened government oversight will allow. The lives of struggling, low-income tenants are reduced to mere stock assets generating further profits for the ultra-rich.
Housing will never be high-quality or affordable for most of us while it exists to fill the pockets of the rich. The tragedy of the Bronx fire should remind us how urgently we must get organized to fight back. It is also a reminder that working people simply cannot have illusions in the Democratic Party and the political friends of big business and the wealthy. The only way forward is to build strong, independent, mass movements of renters, unions, and ordinary working people to demand safe, high-quality, permanently-affordable housing for all.
Mass movements of renters can and should demand that their buildings, and the parasitic investment companies who own them, be taken into public ownership where tenants can have democratic oversight over their homes and communities. We must tax the richest corporations to rapidly expand permanently affordable, high-quality public housing, and to update all existing affordable housing to meet the highest safety standards. On top of this, renters everywhere need universal rent control with no loopholes, like the legislation my council office has brought forward and is organizing to win alongside ordinary working-class renters.
The courageous struggle of hundreds of low-income tenants, Black and brown seniors and immigrant families at the Rainier Court apartments in Seattle shows what’s possible. These tenants, alongside my Council office and community supporters including from Socialist Alternative, forced their landlord (SEED) to rescind huge 2021 rent increases for all four buildings — a massive victory. My office has been organizing alongside Rainier Court tenants for nearly four months, and they still face many of the same problems with infestations, widespread and longstanding lack of repairs, and the shockingly substandard conditions that tenants reported at Twin Parks North West.
Despite the enormous odds, the Rainier Court struggle, as well as our fight in Seattle alongside hundreds of working-class renters, unions, and renter organizations for renters’ rights laws and increased renter protections, shows that when tenants get organized and fight back, they can win. The horrific tragedies in Philadelphia and the Bronx make clear what is at stake for working people every day under capitalism, and why we must fight to win a socialist world.