Lawmakers push for heat sensor mandate in wake of Bronx fire

Torres, Gillibrand to introduce measure aimed at holding building owners accountable for keeping tenants warm

From left: Kristen Gilibrand, U.S. senator for New York; Ritchie John Torres, U.S. representative for New York's 15th congressional district (Getty Images)
From left: Kristen Gilibrand, U.S. senator for New York; Ritchie John Torres, U.S. representative for New York's 15th congressional district (Getty Images)

UPDATED, Jan. 19, 1:30 p.m.: Lawmakers are moving to mandate heat sensors in all federally funded buildings in the wake of a deadly fire at a Bronx apartment complex earlier this month.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Ritchie Torres, both Democrats from New York, plan to introduce a bill in the Senate and House that will require heat sensors in residential buildings across the U.S. that receive federal funding such as Section 8.

The proposal would enable the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and state and local housing administrators to remotely monitor temperatures in buildings such as Twin Parks North West, where residents were reportedly relying on space heaters to keep warm. It is among a number of fire safety measures proposed by local and state officials in the wake of the tragedy.

“New York City’s four worst fires in the past 30 years have all been in the Bronx. And that is not an accident,” said Torres. “That is a consequence of systemic disinvestment from affordable housing.”

The investigation into the fire at Twin Parks North West, which resulted in 17 deaths, is ongoing, but officials said it was sparked by a malfunctioning space heater. In an interview with The Real Deal, Torres said using heat sensors could prevent unit owners from relying on the potentially dangerous devices altogether.

Torres said that in addition to heat sensors he is also proposing a measure that would require self-closing doors in buildings that receive federal funds.

“The highest priority of the city of New York should be to ensure that every building in New York City is compliant with the mandate with self-closing doors,” he said.

On Sunday, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said a self-closing door in the unit where the blaze started had failed to close, allowing smoke to spread to other parts of the building.

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In 2018, New York City passed a law requiring all apartment buildings in the city to have self-closing doors that open into corridors or stairways. Owners were required to install the doors by July 2021.

A spokesperson for the building said it was up to code and had self-closing doors.

Torres said he is also proposing legislation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to set safety standards for the manufacturing of space heaters, including a measure that heaters should be able to cut off automatically.

“If the space heater had shut off automatically, the fire would have been prevented,” he said.

The details of the bills are still being worked out, and a spokesperson for New York’s real estate trade organization, REBNY, said the group is reviewing the heat sensor legislation.

“It is vital to prioritize residents’ safety and we are committed to working with federal, state and city elected officials on proposals to advance that goal,” said REBNY President James Whelan in a statement.

The 19-story apartment building at 333 East 181st Street was part of an eight-building portfolio purchased by a joint venture between New York-based Camber Property Group, San Francisco-based Belveron Partners, and Portland, Maine-based LIHC in 2019 for $166 million.

Camber Property Group, led by Rick Gropper and Andrew Moelis, son of L+M Development Partners founder Ron Moelis, is the controlling investor in the property. As such, Camber is ultimately responsible for its day-to-day operations, which it contracted out to a property manager.

“We are currently evaluating the feasibility of additional safety measures,” a spokesperson for the building said.

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