Single Room Death Traps

How many more must die before something is done? A fire at an illegally subdivided building in the Bronx claimed the lives of three people Monday morning. This isn’t the first time a fire in an illegal apartment kills, nor will it be the last.

There are numerous documented problems with illegal subdivisions. Neighborhoods are overrun with cars and people it can’t support. They may also be responsible for New York City’s shockingly low Census count. WNYC reported earlier this month that Queens residents and activists felt Census workers could not penetrate neighborhoods’ “housing underworld.”

But the single biggest risk with illegal apartments is that they are firetraps. Without secondary means of evacuation and with oftentimes shoddy wiring and overloaded electrical systems, fires in these buildings become a hazard for residents and firefighters.

Last September, Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference detailing the Department of Building’s undercover investigation into illegal apartments. Bloomberg said gaining access to buildings is difficult, making undercover operations an effective tool.

It’s time to start giving the DOB more tools.

The Bronx building that caught on fire Monday had five complaints about illegal apartments—the latest was less than two weeks before the deadly fire. Each time investigators visited the house, they were denied entrance, and the complaint was closed.

Council Members Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) and Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx) have both sponsored bills that would give DOB inspectors better access to buildings. It seems increasingly obvious some legislative action must be taken so the city can inspect properties and fine the owners. The Forum encourages Vallone, Koppell and other Council Members to continue the fight against illegal apartments.

Another important tool to combat illegal apartments is education. People need to know the dangers of illegal apartments and how to identify them during their apartment hunt. This is especially vital for New York’s immigrant groups whose language barriers may unknowingly lead them to firetraps.

State Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) recently took to the streets to warn residents about illegal apartments. The Forum believes these types of efforts should continue.

Residents should also be proactive in reporting illegal apartments. Civic groups like the Juniper Park Civic Association, which has been active in combating illegal apartments should be commended.

Of course, even with increased enforcement and education, owners will continue subdividing homes to make a couple bucks and tenants will continue renting them to save a couple bucks. It’s time the city really starts hitting them where it hurts: their wallets. Or better yet, maybe it’s time to start bringing criminal charges to building owners who negligently build these illegal apartments.


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