The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The deadly Bronx fire exposes the perils and politics of heating one’s home

For less-fortunate New Yorkers, access to safe, adequate heating has never been assured.

A mother and daughter attend a candlelight vigil on Jan. 11, 2022, for the victims of a Jan. 9 fire at an apartment building in the Bronx. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

Details are only beginning to emerge about the deadly fire in the Bronx on Jan. 9 that killed 17 people. But the fact that a portable electric heater sparked the blaze connects this tragic event to a longer history of poor New Yorkers struggling to stay warm in the winter.

Even without definitive evidence that the property owners were not providing adequate heat for their tenants at the time of the fire, the families of Twin Parks North West (including a large community of immigrants from Gambia) remind us of the difficulties that low-income and Black and ethnic minority New Yorkers have long faced in keeping warm, a battle that all too often has ended in tragedy.

Heat has long been a political matter.

New York’s unique heating infrastructure has raised questions of political power and racial and economic justice since the late 19th century. In the city’s cold-water flats (a type of tenement building) and single-family dwellings, residents used individual stoves to produce heat. But the rise of large apartment buildings at the turn of the 20th century took temperature control away from individuals and placed it in the hands of building owners and landlords. In these buildings a central boiler, controlled by a janitor, distributed heat to apartments in the form of steam or water. The cost of heat was included in rent as a flat sum, which meant that tenants had little power over the temperature in their own homes — and landlords had a financial incentive to skimp on heat.

This setup triggered battles over what constituted adequate heat. In 1917, a severe fuel shortage and skyrocketing prices caused by World War I led to landlords not being able to obtain or afford anthracite coal (at the time the city’s primary fuel source). As New Yorkers shivered, they began to fight for a right to have heat, calling for legal protections and organizing rent strikes to protest cold apartments.

Recognizing the severity of the issue, in 1918 New York’s Department of Health amended its Sanitary Code, adding a provision known as Section 225. After some minor tweaks, the new element mandated that landlords keep all centrally heated residential spaces in the city at a minimum of 68 degrees between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. during the heating season when outdoor temperatures fell below 55 degrees during the day. Although the terms of this code have been modified several times, the basic premise remains on the statute books as the New York City Heat and Hot Water Code.

Section 225 provided New Yorker tenants a legal right to heat, but this did not mean that all landlords abided by the ordinance, or that every community benefited from it equally. In affluent apartment buildings, for example, temperatures sometimes far exceeded 68 degrees. Their abundant — often overly abundant — heat resulted in the well-known trope of New Yorkers flinging windows open and stripping off to cool down in the winter months.

But not everyone was so lucky. Unscrupulous landlords often flouted the Sanitary Code, especially when fuel prices rose, leaving residents in freezing apartments. This practice hurt New York’s poorer families to a disproportionately high degree. The city fought back, but not always successfully. The Department of Health established mechanisms to enforce Section 225, including a way for residents to complain and an inspection system. The city also took landlords who violated the provision to court, where judges fined them, and in some cases even incarcerated them, for failing to provide heat. In 1922, a judge gave Harlem landlord Jacob Solotoroff a 60-day sentence (after Solotoroff refused to pay a $600 fine) for failing to heat four tenement buildings where 72 families lived in temperatures that rarely exceeded 57 degrees.

After the Second World War, the battle for adequate heat also increasingly became a matter of racial discrimination. As White residents fled the city for the suburbs and Black and ethnic minority communities grew, landlords increasingly flouted multiple areas of the Sanitary Code, not only failing to provide heat, but also allowing buildings to fall into disrepair.

In redlined areas, where federally backed mortgages were not available, property prices collapsed. Plummeting prices prompted landlords to abandon buildings, now leaving tenants in cold apartments with no access to heat. In some cases, landlords even deliberately withheld heat to push tenants out. Some resilient tenants resisted these bullying tactics, forming co-ops to pool money for fuel and employing their own janitors to keep the heat turned on.

With little access to heat, however, secondary heating devices became the way many low-income families kept warm in the winter. In cold-water tenement flats, which lacked central heating, such devices also became the dominant heating source. Across the city, low-income New Yorkers huddled around gas stoves, water boilers, portable heaters and ovens to stay warm.

But while keeping families warm, these devices resulted in an alarming rise in accidents as heating devices were left on too long, malfunctioned or were accidentally knocked over by children or pets. In 1954, the danger posed by inadequate heating devices captured headlines when eight members of the Gonzales family, along with two of their friends, all recently arrived from Puerto Rico, died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty gas water boiler that had been left on too long. In 1956 alone, oil burners and kerosene stoves caused 1,904 fires in the city.

The Gonzales case, along with several high-profile fatal accidents caused by kerosene stoves, led the Department of Health and the Fire Department to push to improve the safety of heating devices and to lobby for a ban on portable kerosene heaters. Mayor Robert Wagner’s Multiple Dwelling Law also called for landlords to install central heating in buildings of 10 apartments or more to reduce dependence on these devices.

In 1956, the Department of Health doubled down on the heating code, returning the minimum temperature to 68 degrees (the city had lowered it to 65 in 1942 as a wartime conservation measure) to reduce the need for dangerous supplementary heating. In 1965, the city began mandating that landlords heat their buildings 24 hours per day.

But these efforts could not prevent what we might call thermal discrimination. With a flat heating fee included in rents, fluctuating fuel prices inevitably hit low-income tenants, as landlords withdrew heat to protect their profit margins, especially in rent-controlled apartments. Landlords also found ways to ration heat despite Section 225 and encouraged their tenants to save energy by keeping their windows closed.

At no time was the heating problem more apparent than during the energy crisis linked to the Arab oil embargo that began in 1973 and sent fuel prices soaring to new heights. The New York Housing Authority (NYCHA), for example, saw its oil bill almost double to $38 million in 1974. As the price of fuel rose week after week, landlords struggled to afford the oil to keep their tenants warm and called for a reduction in the minimum temperature in the heating code or for permission to raise rents.

In October 1974, New York landlords assembled at the offices of the Saudi Arabian mission to the United Nations to protest high fuel prices and, in a separate action, called for building owners to turn off their boilers for six hours to highlight the plight of landlords. With the city on the brink of bankruptcy, many landlords went into receivership, abandoning buildings and their residents to the cold.

And the situation has changed little in the decades since: Even as wealthier New Yorkers in more expensive buildings swelter, many poorer residents, often those of color, remain stuck in the cold. The tragedy at Twin Parks North West reminds us that for many New Yorkers, heat has long been a feature of their ongoing struggles for social and racial justice. Indoor temperature has been, and continues to be, a powerful social marker and an index of the city’s most entrenched divisions and inequalities.