While Veronica Grande prepared breakfast for her teenage daughter on the morning of April 7th, she smelled the acrid odor of fire. She rushed from one room to the next before noticing smoke seeping under her front door. A mattress abandoned in the hallway of her Butler Houses building was on fire.
“Put your shoes on,” she ordered her daughter. They had to get out of there. But then Grande, 42, realized that there was no easy way to exit.
Fire safety is a life-threatening problem at Butler Houses, one of a cluster of public-housing complexes in the Claremont Village section of the Bronx that house approximately 11,000 residents. Malfunctioning fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors have long created a rampant hazard there, part of what appears to be a larger problem for NYCHA.
Indeed, the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) reported in October 2016 that New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) maintenance workers have been falsifying inspection reports, claiming the safety devices are working when in fact they are not.
In March, the state Department of Health inspected 64 NYCHA buildings throughout the city, finding that 75 percent of common areas, such as hallways, had at least one hazard. This included malfunctioning or missing smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
NYCHA has not responded to questions about what the agency may be doing to improve fire safety. Residents like Veronica Grande want answers.
On April 7, the day of the fire in her building, neither her smoke alarm nor carbon monoxide detector went off. Unsure about how to escape through the hallway, she flung open every window in her apartment. Then she sat anxiously in the bedroom with her daughter and infant son, stuffing a wet towel beneath the door to block the path of the perilous smoke.
Grande and her children survived the fire but now she lives in fear. She thinks it obvious that someone lit the mattress, something the Bureau of Fire Investigation is looking into. But how will they discover who started the fire? She, along with other residents, want NYCHA to install security cameras in the hallways to deter arson.
Grande’s neighbor, Mercedes Rosario, initially thought the burning plastic odor was her television shorting out. Then she heard a commotion in the hallway. She opened her fire-resistant door, which was warm, and tilted her head into the hallway.
“Everything was filled with smoke,” she recalled.
The way out was past the flames. So Rosario and six family members sat on her plastic-covered sofas in their living room, with the windows open, until firefighters extinguished the flames roughly an hour later.
Rosario wants a smoke and carbon monoxide detector installed in common area hallways on all 21 floors, given that her detectors failed to go off.
New York City law requires all NYCHA apartments to have a hard-wired smoke detector with a battery backup and self-closing door to the hallway. And all buildings have an alarm system that displays the location of a fire to first responders.
The April 7 fire occurred near the two-year anniversary of another Claremont Village fire that resulted in the death of two children. The blaze at nearby 1368 Webster Avenue was started by burning incense inside an apartment and was investigated by the New York Department of Investigation. Similar to the April 7 fire, many building residents said they didn’t hear smoke alarms. And four hours before, Rene Rivera, a NYCHA maintenance worker, was present in the same apartment where the fire started. He had filled out a false report that stated the smoke alarm was in working order. Rivera was suspended following the April, 2016 blaze and he retired by July of that year.
Some maintenance workers routinely fill out false reports, according to the DOI report. Forty apartments out of 136 investigated by the agency contained non-functioning smoke or carbon monoxide detectors overlooked by maintenance workers.
However, some residents told the DOI that they took down or removed batteries from safety devices following NYCHA inspections.
Following the DOI investigation, the agency recommended NYCHA discipline eight maintenance workers and an assistant superintendent, which the city housing authority did.
Maintenance workers are required to check smoke detectors every time an apartment is visited, according to NYCHA procedures.
Roughly three months after the blaze at 1368 Webster Avenue, NYCHA approved a little more than $1 million from its operating budget and federal funding for new smoke detectors at various buildings citywide. And the city housing authority also approved roughly $1 million from its operating budget and federal funding for inspection and testing of sprinkler systems and fire standpipes, which provide firefighters with the water to control blazes, in the South Bronx. Such inspections are required by city and FDNY regulations.
Residents can call the city 311 hotline to request a new smoke and carbon monoxide detector if theirs is broken.
Five days before the latest fire, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency at NYCHA to speed up safety repairs. Shola Olatoye, chair and CEO of the agency, who faced mismanagement accusations, announced her resignation roughly a week later. Two years ago, Olatoye promised residents safety and security improvements as part of her 10-year strategy to keep the budget balanced, improve tenant services and collect rent.
The New York City Housing Authority agreed Monday to fund billions in building improvements to settle a federal investigation that accused the agency of mismanagement and falsification of city documents.
The investigation by United States Attorney Geoffrey Berman accused NYCHA staff of a widespread culture of neglect of safety conditions, reflecting conclusions in the Department of Investigation’s March report into fire safety.
While Cornell Norton, president of a resident association in Claremont Village, acknowledged that some renters place fire hazards, such as trash and furniture, in building hallways, fires, he said, “can be alleviated.” Nolton agreed with his neighbor Rosario about the importance of the city installing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in common area hallways.
“I can’t live this way. In a building without safety measures, in a building that you can’t escape,” Rosario said.
This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.