Four years before the conflagration that claimed the lives of 17 New Yorkers at the Twin Parks apartments in The Bronx, a devastating blaze tore through another building in the borough under remarkably similar circumstances.
On a frigid night shortly after Christmas 2017, fire broke out in the kitchen of a first floor apartment at 2363 Prospect Ave. in Belmont. Within minutes, thick black smoke spread throughout the building, and when it was over, 13 tenants had perished, including an infant. Six firefighters were injured.
In both the Twin Parks and Prospect Avenue fires, the death toll was magnified by a simple but deadly flaw: smoke and flame caused by a fire in a single apartment rocketed throughout both buildings after doors remained open.
An open door also fanned the flames in a blaze that consumed a Jackson Heights apartment building, leaving dozens of families homeless.
Today despite a repeated cycle of outrage and reform — including tougher penalties against landlords following the Belmont tragedy — thousands of self-closing doors that do not function properly still fill New York City, fully known to housing and fire officials.
Those malfunctioning doors are especially prevalent in lower-income neighborhoods dense with apartment buildings, an analysis by THE CITY of city records has found.
Thousands of violations remain unresolved for either non-functioning or non-existent self-closing doors across New York City, code violation records kept by the city Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) show.
Examining every door violation filed by inspectors from Jan. 1, 2019 through the end of 2021, THE CITY found 18,305 open violations remained in 10,610 buildings as of Jan. 11, 2022.
More than 4,800 of those open citations are at least two years old, dating back to inspections that took place in 2019.
“Those statistics show what I’ve been saying repeatedly, which is we need strong housing laws,” said Coumcilmember Oswald Feliz (D-The Bronx), chair of the Council’s newly formed Fire Prevention Task Force. “We also need a system that promptly detects violations and a system that takes quick action to make sure that violations once detected are quickly cured.”
Overall, including violations since certified as fixed, inspectors wrote up 74,448 citations across all five boroughs during the three-year period.
Any residential building with three or more units must have spring-loaded doors that close automatically, under state law and city codes.
Many of the buildings with doors in violation for lacking self-closing mechanisms are located near those that burned in The Bronx and Queens,
THE CITY found 378 open violations for non-functioning or non-existent self-closing doors in 233 buildings as of Jan. 11 in ZIP code 10458 — where the Prospect Avenue fire took place.
That includes a 48-unit rental building across the street from the fire with two open violations, both dating back to October 2021, and one open violation, also dating to October, at a 160-unit building around the corner on Southern Boulevard.
As of last July, thanks to a reform that followed the 2017 Belmont fire, all such violations get cited as “immediately hazardous,” the most severe class of housing code violation.
A 47-unit building at 246 E. 199th St. had 10 open citations for self-closing door violations as of last week, some of which date back to 2019.
HPD notified the landlord months ago, but as of Friday none had been resolved. All but one of the citations were classified as an “immediate hazard.”
Last week THE CITY visited the aging 99-year-old building, where one-bedrooms rent for around $1,000 a month and three bedrooms go for around $2,200. Going floor to floor, THE CITY found several self-closing apartment doors — all of which are painted fire-engine red — that did not self close.
The door to one second-floor unit had no knob or lock and was partially open, held in place by a clasp and a padlock. A third-floor unit door was misaligned with the frame and remained slightly ajar with a one-inch gap.
At another third-floor apartment — one HPD tagged as in violation six months ago — the door hung open by about two inches because it would not fully close by itself. The tenants — who did not want their names published for fear of angering the landlord — said the door had been like this since they’d moved in six months ago and that to shut it fully, they have to force it closed.
A message left seeking comment from the building’s management, Vanderbilt Properties, was not returned Friday.
“What that means to me is this is Russian roulette,” said Andrew Sokolof-Diaz, 32, a tenant who was displaced nearly a year ago from his Queens apartment after the devastating fire at 89-07 34th Ave. in Jackson Heights.
The April fire there erupted in a sixth floor apartment, but the smoke quickly swirled throughout the building because the unit’s door was left open. All told, 200 families were displaced. The building remains vacant and nearly a year later, tenants have yet to gain access to retrieve their belongings.
Last week, 58 buildings in the Queens zip code where that fire occurred among them had 100 open violations related to self-closing doors, THE CITY found.
Just across the street from the now decrepit fire site, a 108-unit rental building at 89-04 34th Ave. had four outstanding self-closing door violations as of last week — including one where HPD declared the landlord’s certification that the door had been fixed was invalid.
Last week THE CITY found tenants had wedged open numerous hallway self-closing doors. The stairwells had no doors, so if there was a fire, smoke would have an immediate unimpeded path throughout the building. One of the tenants explained that residents prefer not to have to open the door because it’s “too much of a hassle.”
An employee of Michael Young Realty, the building’s management, told THE CITY the owners were in the process of addressing the open violations and admitted tenants wedging doors open was a problem.
“Our super goes up and down, but there are just hard-headed tenants,” she said. “It’s not right to do that as you explain with the fire, but we can’t be on guard with them 24 and 7.”
Just down the block from the fire site, a 111-unit residence at 90-10 34th Ave. had 12 open citations as of last week, HPD data show. Most of the doors cited by HPD were functioning when THE CITY visited Thursday — with the exception of a door on the ground floor leading to the stairwell which hung open and did not self-close.
Stairwells function as chimneys during fires, potentially routing smoke throughout the building.
A message left for Stellar Properties, the building’s manager, was not returned Friday.
The tenants forced to vacate due to the fire at 89-07 34th Ave. have sued the owners for negligence and the city HPD for failing to enforce the self-closing door laws. In July, HPD sued the landlord to address the many pending violations, make the building habitable again and pay penalties.
In court filings, the owners’ attorney, Denice Bolanos, denies all negligence claims by arguing that pending violations are related only to the fire. She wrote that only 10 violations existed pre-conflagration and that half of those occurred under prior ownership.
Still tenant Sokolof-Diaz predicts a repeat in another building with another fire and another opened door — until enforcement is taken seriously.
“As we keep going in time with lack of enforcement, with landlords getting slaps on the wrists, with the same system — we’re going to have so many more tragedies,” Sokolof-Diaz said.
THE CITY found multiple examples of buildings with more than a dozen open self-closing door violations going back months and even years, including:
- 1193 Rogers Ave., Flatbush, Brooklyn. This three-story 10-unit rental building has 21 open violations dating as far back as March 2019. The most recent citations were issued just after Christmas. The building’s manager, Jason Realty Associates, could not be reached for comment.
- 530-540 E. 169 St. Morrisania, the Bronx. This 321-unit apartment building is known as Fulton Tower and advertises itself as “fireproof.” It has 20 open violations dating as far back as January 2019. All but three are “immediate hazards,” and citations were issued for entry doors of 17 separate units throughout the building. City building inspectors in November also issued a partial vacate order on Fulton Tower due to what they say were “defective balcony slabs” that were causing a “hazard below.’ Fordham Fulton Realty, the building’s manager, is no longer validly registered with HPD. It could not be reached for comment Friday.
Clustered in Poor Communities
Door violations are disproportionately concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods, THE CITY’s analysis found — with clusters in The Bronx, in the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood, and in central Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy and Bushwick.
Far fewer door citations per 100,000 residents were issued in Manhattan below 110th Street or in Queens. Almost none were issued in Staten Island, where the vast majority of structures are single- or two-family homes that aren’t subject to the self-closing door rule.
Fire Department officials identified two more recent major conflagrations besides the fires at Prospect Avenue, Twin Parks and Jackson Heights, both in Manhattan: a January 2020 fire at 515 E. 72nd St., where 22 were injured, and a blaze in November at 1833 Seventh Ave. where an elderly tenant and the mother of an infant died.
Unresolved violations persist despite pleas from city authorities to close doors and an education campaign that followed the Prospect Avenue tragedy.
Days after the Prospect Avenue blaze, the fire department canvassed the neighborhood, handing out literature instructing residents on what to do if there’s a fire in their apartment. At the top of the list: if fleeing, make sure the apartment door is closed behind you.
That was followed by a public service announcement video.
In 2018 the City Council passed a law making self-closing door violations immediate hazards, and upping the potential penalties for landlords who don’t fix the problem. And HPD began including self-closing doors on its checklist of items to observe during any inspection.
After the Twin Parks fire, FDNY officials said the fire was initially sparked by a space heater in a third-floor duplex, but that smoke spread throughout the 19-story building because of the chimney effect caused by open doors.
Fire marshals discovered that the self-closing door on the apartment where the blaze started didn’t function properly and a stairway door on the 15th floor was also left open. The city medical examiner ruled the cause of death for all 17 who died was smoke inhalation.
In response Mayor Eric Adams made a point of reminding residents to close their doors if fleeing a fire, and the fire department once again issued a public service announcement to that effect.
Two weeks ago U.S Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-the Bronx), who as a City Councilmember pushed for door violation reforms following the 2017 fire, announced the formation of a city/state/federal task force to improve fire safety, including examining how current laws on self-closing doors are enforced.