Representatives of city agencies, firefighters’ unions, and tenant, landlord and housing advocacy organizations, including New York City Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri, today painted a frightening picture of the unsafe and illegal practice of partitioning apartments with drywall in buildings and private homes throughout the five boroughs. Their testimony on the issue came at a public hearing held by the New York State Senate Committee on Housing.
The hearing was sparked by the recent verdict of a Bronx jury which found the owners of 236 East 178th Street in the Morris Heights section responsible for the death of two firefighters, Lt. Curtis Meyran and John Bellew, who were forced to jump from a fourth-story window while battling what has become known as the "Black Sunday" blaze on Jan. 23, 2005. Three other firefighters also jumped but survived serious injuries. Reports said the firefighters became disoriented because drywall partition created a maze-like environment in the apartment. The blaze was caused by an overheated extension cord that ignited a mattress in the illegally subdivided apartment. The tragedy drew public attention to this unlawful practice.
"Despite the tragic death of two firefighters, and serious injuries to several others, the unsafe and illegal practice of carving up apartments and rooms in buildings and private homes is as widespread and rampant as it was four years ago. This poses a serious threat to the safety and lives of millions of tenants and thousands of firefighters. If we don’t stop this practice, it will be a matter of time before tragedy strikes again," said Espada, Chairman of the Senate Housing Committee and Vice President for the Senate for Urban Policy and Planning.
Espada said carving up apartments with drywall partition creates fire hazards because of
faulty and improperly installed electrical wiring and illegally tapped-into gas lines. "We painfully witnessed what could happen in a fire emergency under these conditions. Our Bravest must never be left with the choice of a fiery death and jumping to their death," he said.
In addition to Espada, Housing Committee members Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., both Bronx Democrats, were present at the hearing held at the Gould Memorial Library Auditorium at Bronx Community College.
Espada said the committee will compile information and recommendations provided by the experts, then issue a report with concrete remedies – which he said could include all or a combination of the following: a joint task force of city and state agencies, firefighters’ unions, and tenant, landlord and housing advocacy groups; a pilot enforcement program; legislative action; an education campaign, and other initiatives.
"No matter what comes out of this hearing, the first thing we need to do is implement a citywide campaign to educate tenants and the owners of buildings and private homes of the serious threat that this practice poses to the safety of all tenants and firefighters," Espada said.
He continued, "We also must explore the underlying issues driving tenants and landlords to engage in this dangerous practice. Is it greed? Is it an issue of lack of affordable rental housing? Is it a lack of understanding or a language barrier? It is apparent that this practice is widespread among immigrant populations, particularly the Hispanic community."
Espada added, "Whatever it is, it’s illegal and dangerous, and we must do everything to stop it in order to protect tenants, firefighters and property."