Bronx Apartment Fire
On a brisk Sunday morning in New York City, a low-income housing building in the heart of the Bronx was soon engulfed by smoke and flames causing, on what was originally an average Sunday morning, a tragic fire that soon became the worst in the city’s recent history. Smoke filled the halls of the 19-story building, carrying up like a chimney of death. On the surface, it seems like a freak accident caused by a faulty space heater, but on further investigation, the reality is much more nefarious. Can we really call this tragedy an accident in a city whose politicians cover up landlord neglect of building conditions? Where politicians take real estate money for campaigns , and put developers in charge of city urban planning committees ? Are these all accidents too? The reality is, under the dictatorship of the wealthy whose boot all in the United States live under, the facade of democracy and equity quickly fades to dust when you examine the depth of capital’s reach into every facet that determines the lives of New York City’s working and poor.
We can take the case of the low-income housing building in Tremont which caught on fire on January 9th as the prime example of how New York’s working and poor are left to pick up the pieces of their lives when the city fails to protect them. NYC Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) records  show that as recently as December 8th, nearly a month prior, tenants made multiple complaints of lack of suitable heat. According to the fire department, the cause of the fire of the Bronx building was a faulty space heater, often used when there is insufficient heat in the apartment to keep from freezing. NYC’s new Mayor Eric Adams lamented the fire could have been prevented from swallowing the building whole had the tenants, running out for their lives, remembered to close their apartment door, attempting to shift the blame on these workers . But according to NYC law §27-2041.1, the responsibility to install and maintain self-closing doors is on property owners, not tenants. Failure to do so is a C class violation, the most urgent tier, which once again was reported against this building’s management company which failed to fix the violations in accordance with city law. This evidence suggests that had the owners of the building followed the law, the building fire would have been totally preventable, as well as the fire’s spreading to other apartments. The fire took the lives of 17 people, 8 of whom were young children, and their lives were treated as mere casualties in the pursuit of profits for landlords, politicians, and developers.
To protect themselves from litigation, landlords often open Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) and transfer their building’s deed to this company. This is with the aim to keep tenants and housing advocates in the dark, hiding behind company walls to avoid accountability. Such is the case of this Tremont building whose owner is listed as the joint venture Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, LLC. Thanks to the work of Justfix, NYC, through their Who Owns What tool we are able to access a compiled portfolio pulling from several NYC clerical databases to determine not only who owns the buildings, but the agents behind each company, the other buildings they own in the city, housing code violations, litigation and eviction history, and much more. Through this, it was discovered that the owner of Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, LLC is Crain’s New York Forty Under Forty Rick Gropper , who also conveniently sits on Mayor Eric Adam’s transition advice team on housing . A city notoriously known for its exorbitant rent prices and crippling homelessness crisis can rest assured that its new mayor will be getting the best advice on housing for the future of NYC’s working people. After all, who knows the poor better than a millionaire real estate developer?
But the fatal affairs in the Bronx are not an isolated event of an attack on the working via housing. The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic under the boot of U.S. capitalism has left thousands of households with the threat of eviction looming over their heads. Tenants and homeowners alike suffer through anxieties between both the possibility of losing their homes and of lifelong debt, taking a blow to their credit which will make it all the more difficult to find future housing. What a catch 22; can’t pay rent? You get evicted. You get evicted? Now you’re on the tenant blacklist. You’re homeless? Well, that’s your failure as a person.
Throughout the pandemic, Black and brown working-class neighborhoods all over the city were especially devastated as the virus turned NYC into the world’s COVID epicenter. As Friedrich Engels writes, “Modern natural science has proved that the so-called ‘poor districts’ in which the workers are crowded together are the breeding places of all those epidemics which from time to time afflict our towns.”  Many wondered why New York City became the world’s fastest breeding ground for the virus, some even suggesting that the city people were inherently unhygienic. According to the NYC Comptroller’s report  released in 2015, between 2005 to 2013 the city’s overcrowding rate in rentals and private houses increased by 15.8%, well over the national average. The severely overcrowded housing rate jumped even more egregious by 44.8%, accounting for 3.3% of homes in the city. Let us be clear, there is more than enough space for NYC residents to live comfortably. In keeping NYC rental costs high, landlords must create a false sense of scarcity. While many left the city returning to their hometowns when the pandemic hit, landlords refused to re-rent those vacant apartments to keep housing prices from driving downwards . In Manhattan alone, one in ten apartments is vacant , with some landlord advocates even suggesting there are 245,000 more unfilled units being ignored by the city to uphold rent stabilization laws .
The areas suffering with overcrowded conditions were once again the same working-class neighborhoods that were being decimated by the spread of the virus, primarily in the outer boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. As these workers lost their jobs and succumbed to fighting for their health, the burden of rent never ceased to fall upon them. New York State’s officials answered not with suspending rent, not with sending rental subsidies or payments, but by only temporarily pausing eviction cases in court. That was their answer: a pathetic pause of vicious attacks on humanity with no material help, one that enabled thousands all over the state to accrue an unimaginable debt. And worse for the city’s immigrant population ineligible for benefits, 37% of New Yorkers, a deafening silence.
Tenants’ Rights organizers and activists had been prompt since the very beginning of the pandemic urging city and state officials to cancel rent and forgive the debt. The Housing Justice for All Coalition had created a Cancel the Rent bill, which proposed a program with funding from the Federal CARES Act that would shift the burden of rent from tenants to landlords. The Cancel the Rent bill would have forgiven tenants of their rental burdens during the COVID period (considered March 2020 – Jan. 15, 2022) and instead created a grant assistance program for landlords to apply for. To apply, landlords would have had to provide evidence that they faced hardship from loss of rent to maintain their buildings, pay mortgages, taxes, and utilities and apply for an amount grant totaling their losses without profit. What does this mean, “without profit”? The components of rent that a tenant must pay include partial building/house maintenance, utilities, taxes, prospective amount for repairs, and profit for the landlord. For example, my landlord bought the building I live in for $52,500 in the 80s wholesale, no mortgage. However, he makes $201,600 a year in rent from just my apartment building alone, and he owns another four. According to the NYC Department of Finance, he pays $12,120 in property taxes a year for my building. Additionally, he puts out another $6,240/yr. for water and heat, costing him in total about $18,360 to maintain the building and our living conditions. The remaining roughly $183,240 is profit for my landlord, profit that he would not be able to recuperate under the Cancel the Rent bills, profit he earns off the back of his working tenants for simply owning our homes. So, it sounds like a sensible bill, right? Landlords still get assistance for their needs up to hardship without profit, tenants are eased with burdens and can then continue to work and pay ongoing rent with ease. In short, everybody gets the help they desperately need. Except there is one catch: real estate owns New York and New York politicians, and they want to profit from us. This is after all the point of capitalism. So, with the ease of cutting butter, the Cancel the Rent bill was killed. Instead, the state unveiled their shiny new $2.7 billion program called the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) that tenants will have to apply for which covers up to 1-year rent owed, with profit. Alas, the burden remains on working families. But in a city where the average rent is $3,955, $2.7 billion of taxpayer money can go by as fast as snapping your fingers, leaving you wondering if anyone even saw where the money went.
According to the ERAP reports published on NYS’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) , there were 296,511 applications statewide, with 76% of them being from New York City. As of January 18th, 2022, 36% of applications have been approved and payments to landlords have already been made. Another 52,889 applications remain approved with reserved but unpaid funding. Now, with no funding left in the ERAP program, the remaining 46% of household applicants fall in limbo with little hope for assistance foreseen. Sadly, the state has not released any reports on how many landlords were paid out by the Landlord Rental Assistance Program (LRAP), a program designed to assist landlords whose tenants moved out or refused to apply for ERAP yet left owing rent. And there went the $2.7 billion of taxpayer money, flushed away to subsidize landlord profits while 135,380 households fell through the cracks and into housing court.
But even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the financial epicenter, the heart of U.S. capitalism, 91,271 had been experiencing long-term homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) . As public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2018-2019 NYS school years shows, an estimated 148,485 public school students experienced homelessness at different points of the year. Of that total, 5,460 students were unsheltered, and 40,822 were in shelters . This is all in the same state with a city declared as the home of the world’s wealthiest people .
Now that the eviction moratorium has expired, many are left wondering what are the next steps in the housing crisis in NYC. The future is what we make of it, and history has shown that despite the gravity of attacks on them, tenants have not sat idly by while the landlord class waged their war against them. No, throughout history proletarians, united in a struggle for their livelihood, have lashed out back at their oppressors. Such is the sentiment recalling the East Side Strike of 1904, NYC’s first known rent strike. Led by working-class Jewish and Eastern European migrant women, the rent strike was kicked off when 20,000 homes were displaced due to the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. In their true parasitic nature, landlords sought to maximize profits by increasing rents 20-30% since there was a new housing shortage. This is as Engels predicted, writing, “the house owner in his capacity as capitalist has not only the right but, in view of the competition, to a certain extent also the duty of ruthlessly making as much out of his property in house rent as he possibly can. In such a society the housing shortage is no accident.” In response to these attacks, the women organized and conducted pickets and marches in front of the buildings of landlords who were increasing the rent. Some stories state that women beat up management agents as well. The landlords succumbed and rolled back their increases when the tenants withheld their rent. Some tenants were even able to win decreases and longer leases.
Throughout the Great Depression, the Communist Party USA was at the forefront of the housing struggle when nobody else was. The Communist Party organized seven mass rent strikes in 1931 and 1932 demanding that owners reduce rent in light of the mass unemployment rates . When evictions were ordered, the Communists fought back with Unemployed People’s Councils who would break into the evicted apartments, moving the tenants back into their old homes, or sometimes preventing marshals from conducting eviction processes altogether. Because of how expensive the Communists were making evictions for landlords, they were able to work out a deal in favor of the tenant remaining in the home . All over the city, the Unemployed People’s Councils were on fire invigorating the fed-up tenants. In 1933, 200 buildings in the Bronx alone went on rent strike demanding 15% rent decreases, for repairs, and for recognition of their Tenants Associations. Police were called in often for mass evictions against these striking tenants, and in one instance 4,000 tenants fought back and attacked the police. The 1934 Harlem Rent Strike led by the Black working class birthed one of New York’s largest tenant organizations, the Consolidated Tenant’s League.
In 1943, the city and the MetLife insurance company together constructed Stuyvesant Town on the southeastern end of Manhattan, intended to be a private middle-class village. But in its construction thousands of families were displaced, and instead of being rehoused in the new apartments, they were exiled by the whites-only policy. In retort, white communists would apply for housing and move in Black families while Black veterans sued MetLife and the city on the basis of racial discrimination in publicly subsidized housing. The struggle brought about the 1958 Brown-Isaacs law which bans discrimination in all publicly funded housing – a small reform, but nonetheless only possible through worker solidarity.
The tenant organizers of this time fought valiantly and won us tenants many of the rights we do have today. In return, they were met with state repression and targeted as reds, and soon enough the capitalist class regained its power and attacked the tenants back through redlining and infiltration of organizations. But to know where we are going, we must learn from where we have been.
So what is our answer? What is left for us to fight for, to do? On the question of housing, Engels wrote of the bourgeoisie, “As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labor by the working class itself.” The crisis of housing under the dictatorship of capital is a necessary component of its existence. As long as we are under the rule of the capitalist class, the landlord class, we will find ourselves in the hamster wheel, gasping for air with no end in sight. In fact, there is no need for the parasitic class to exist at all. When removing the debilitating price of profit, housing is already affordable, as is the case in Venezuela, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union. A better world is possible when, as Karl Marx wrote, “The proletarian can free himself only by abolishing private property in general”. The necessity for housing for humans is as vital as water, as air. Without any sense of sanctuary, our health physically and mentally deteriorates. The ruling class is now short-sighted, looking over only at the shiny profits that lay ahead, forgetting we will bury them in the pits of debt they’ve dug for us.
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Kayla Popuchet is a Peruvian-American CUNY student studying Latin American and Eastern European History, analyzing these region's histories under a scientific socialist lens. She works as a NYC Housing Rights and Tenants Advocate, helping New York's most marginalized evade eviction. Kayla is also a member of the Party of Communists USA and the Progressive Center for a Pan-American Project.
This article was republished from Red Patriot.