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.