Last year the New York City Housing Authority proposed and then backed down from a rule that would have banned storing or charging lithium-ion battery powered e-bikes and e-scooters in public housing. 

The idea was to reduce the possibility of dangerous fires sparked by the potentially volatile batteries, but the proposed ban ran into pushback from tenants and supporters of delivery riders who rely on the devices to make a living.

Now the city’s biggest landlord is taking a new, less Draconian shot at e-bike regulation, with  proposed rules that allow storage and charging of micro-mobility vehicles inside NYCHA apartments, but limit the number to one device per household and require that the batteries be certified as safe.

NYCHA’s compromise solution confronts a problem vexing private landlords across the city and taxing the resources of the fire department.

In the last few years the number of fires caused by exploding lithium-ion batteries has gone through the roof in New York City, rising steadily from 30 in 2019 to 228 through October of this year, up from 220 last year with two months still to go in 2023. 

The human toll from these explosive fires, which happen spontaneously and are extremely difficult to put out, has been heavy. To date New York City has seen 24 deaths, including 14 so far this year, and 386 injuries from blazes believed to have been fueled by e-bike batteries. The issue peaked in June with a fire inside a first-floor repair shop in Chinatown that killed four residents living in apartments above the store.

A charred electronic battery amid a pile of burnt vehicles after a fire at a chinatown e-bike repair shop killed four people, June 20, 2023.
A charred electronic battery amid a pile of burnt vehicles after a fire at a chinatown e-bike repair shop killed four people, June 20, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Within NYCHA’s 320 developments there have been 34 battery fires since 2020, including three that resulted in fatalities. A 2021 fire at Manhattan’s Riis Houses killed one tenant and seriously injured another, while a blaze last year in East Harlem’s Jackie Robinson’s Houses killed a 5-year-old girl and a 36-year-old woman.  

The fire department has been railing about this problem for the last several years, trying to thread the needle by not calling for an outright prohibition of the vehicles — widely utilized by thousands of delivery workers each day — but instead zeroing in on the batteries that power them.

The FDNY warns against the use of refurbished batteries that are particularly volatile, and recommends that only batteries that have been certified as safe by recognized national testing organizations such as UL Labs should be used. The FDNY also warns against charging multiple batteries close together because if one battery explodes the fire will likely jump to the other batteries, exponentially increasing the danger and damage. And fire officials frown on plugging battery chargers into extension cords and power strips, and warn against setting up chargers at the entryways of apartments, preventing escape in the event of a fire.

In response to the FDNY’s concerns, a new city law that went into effect in March bars the sale of used or refurbished e-bike batteries, while another law that kicked in in September requires that all batteries for sale must be lab certified as safe.

In March NYCHA was specifically warned about these battery issues by the Department of Investigation. DOI released a report detailing flaws in NYCHA protocols that contributed to multiple e-bike and trash chute fires and recommended the Housing Authority limit the number of devices allowed to be stored in its apartments and ban the operation of businesses within apartments that repair, store and charge the batteries.

Last week NYCHA put up a notice on their website to all tenants, seeking their input about new rules they’re proposing that embrace recommendations of both the FDNY and DOI.

The rules would allow for the storage and charging of one e-bike or e-scooter per household and require that the device’s battery be certified as safe by a known safety watchdog. Refurbished batteries would be strictly prohibited, as would charging more than one battery, even if they’re UL approved, inside an apartment. Charging anything in the common areas of NYCHA developments would be forbidden.

NYCHA also would prohibit the use of extension cords or power strips to charge batteries, requiring that chargers be plugged directly into wall sockets. Batteries could not be charged near apartment entry doors, and an adult would have to be awake and in the apartment while a battery is being charged.

Bigger electric vehicles such as mopeds, scooters and motorcycles that are registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles and require a license to operate would also be banned from NYCHA apartments and common areas. Owners of these vehicles would have to remove them from NYCHA property by March or face sanctions. 

Details about how these rules would be enforced have yet to be codified, including who will check to make sure there’s only one device in an apartment, that batteries are safety certified and that chargers are plugged into walls. Will tenants have to inform NYCHA management that they’re storing/charging an e-bike/e-scooter that is allowed? If so, will they have to certify that they’re following the rules?

“NYCHA’s policy regarding electric micro mobility vehicles and devices and the aspects of its implementation have not yet been finalized,” said agency spokesperson Michael Horgan. “We look forward to reviewing and considering the feedback we receive for incorporation in the finalized policy, while we continue to emphasize education and best practices on the subject.”

Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), who sponsored the law barring the sale of refurbished e-bike batteries, praised NYCHA for taking steps to regulate the bikes without banning them, but warned enforcement could be tricky.

Brewer says she recently met with tenants of Wise Towers, a NYCHA development in her district where there was a trash chute fire in 2021 that injured three residents, and she has spoken at length with the FDNY about e-bike risks. 

She came away worrying about bike owners who’ve already found ways to get around the new prohibition on refurbished batteries. Some have placed fake safety certification stickers on old batteries, while others are placing new lithium-ion cells within old batteries — both workarounds that defeat the purpose of the law.

“Yes to the nuanced NYCHA idea. However with so much gaming going on, I still worry about people having fires,” she said. “It’s a good start but unless we have some other national effort [banning] producing second hand batteries, I think we have a problem.”

Two Fatal Fires

NYCHA’s track record with battery fires dates to November 2018 when an e-scooter parked in the hallway of an East Williamsburg development erupted in flames and caused extensive damage. Soon after that fire, the city Department of Investigation recommended that NYCHA ban the devices from all developments.

But the Housing Authority took no action and in December 2021, a conflagration erupted inside a fourth-floor apartment of the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side. Multiple e-bikes were found inside the apartment where the fire started.

Five months later in May 2022, NYCHA proposed what DOI had suggested three years earlier — a total ban on storing and charging micro mobility devices powered by lithium-ion batteries within apartments or common areas of public housing. The authority then began collecting public comment.

Councilmembers pushed for more e-bike regulation during a City Hall press conference after a fire sparked by a lithium-ion battery, March 2, 2023.
Councilmembers pushed for more e-bike regulation during a City Hall press conference after a fire sparked by a lithium-ion battery, March 2, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When a fatal fire erupted that August inside a sixth-floor apartment at the Jackie Robinson Houses in East Harlem, killing a 5-year-old girl and her father’s girlfriend, fire inspectors again blamed exploding lithium-ion batteries.

By then, a growing chorus of tenants and advocates for delivery drivers began to speak out against the proposed ban, warning that it would harm their ability to make a living. On Nov. 10, 2022, the Housing Authority put the proposal on hold, stating, “There is no rule in place and therefore, no date for implementation, but NYCHA is still working on determining next steps for this proposed new rule. We are continuing our technical research and meeting with experts and stakeholders to determine the best course of action moving forward.”

Last week, on Nov. 1, they revisited the issue for the first time in nearly a year, posting a notice on their website seeking public comment again for their new version of e-bike battery regulation. The deadline for public comments is Jan. 1, 2024.