Families Face Crowded, Dangerous Housing

By Ericka Martinez

In the Bronx, severe crowding is a common problem. Genevieve Adjei Sr, a high school student, deals with severe crowding in her family’s two bedroom apartment. Ten years ago, she moved from Ghana to the Bronx to be with her mother and her siblings for a brighter future. Her family decided to move near the Grand Concourse where she lives with her two young brothers, her twin sister, her grandmother, mother, and father.

Genevieve quickly had to learn English and learn her way through the city. She lacks privacy because she shares a room. She sleeps with her twin sister on a bunk bed. Her brothers sleep on a full size bed, and her grandma on a twin size bed. They sleep in one room. Her parents share the other room. At times she wishes she had a room for herself or to share with just her sister. Also, she finds herself having a hard time using the single bathroom in her apartment since it’s always being used.

Because her grandmother is home all the time, Genevieve gets time to focus on school, more than caring for her younger brothers. This summer, her landlord is replacing her rugged bedroom floors with wooden floors. She doesn’t have any complaints of her landlord. Even though, she says, he isn’t attentive to the tenants housing problems at times. “You can barely find time, there’s always something going on,” she said.

Many Bronx families put up walls to divide rooms. Esther Sanchez, a high school student, lives in three-bedroom apartment on the Grand Concourse. She lives with her younger brother, mother and step-father. Last year, her mother decided to destroy the living room wall to have more space and build another wall elsewhere in the apartment. This process took two months to complete and their landlord wasn’t aware of this construction until he found trash bags of pavement and cement buckets. “Super didn’t know at first. He went to do inspection, saw it and let it be like that,” she said.

As he did his yearly check-up of each apartment, he noticed the change in the Esther’s home. He questioned the change, but he didn’t sound angry about the construction, she said. He let the apartment stay as it was. The Fire Department of New York says such makeshift walls are dangerous because they create fire traps and put fire fighters and tenants at risk.

According to the Furman Center’s State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2017, the neighborhood of Morrisania is one of the top four most severely crowded districts in the Bronx. There were 165,480 tenants living with crowded households in 2016, compared to 155,500 in 2010.  Another crowded district in the Bronx is Highbridge. There are 138,332 tenants living in a crowded household compared to 2010 when there were only 137,827. There are 91,100 tenants struggling with paying their rent.

The FDNY says many of the fires starting in the Bronx are due to apartments being a 100 years old. Patrick and John, two firefighters from FDNY Engine Company 50, Ladder 19 in Morrisania, know the dangers of these apartments. The electrical demands of 2018 are no match for 100-year-old buildings wired for a simpler time. Many tenants now use a lot of electricity to charge their phones, computers, and have smart televisions.

Many buildings catch fire due to the electrical wiring overload and delayed maintenance in buildings. “Black Sunday” is one of the many cases where electrical issues put firefighters in danger. On a chilly Sunday morning in late January of 2005, a fire started after a blizzard blanketed the whole city with snow the day before. A call came early that day to different fire departments around the district that a fire had started at a tenement home on East 178th Street near the Grand Concourse.

The cause was an electrical issue. Engine 42 was the first to get there. Their men took the houses and got into the building. Then Ladder 33 arrived and its men were sent to the third floor where the fire began. Ladder 27 and Rescue 3 were the last to come. Their men were sent to the fourth floor to keep the fire from spreading upwards.

There were six men on the 4th floor searching for any civilians in danger. Two met their deaths that day. “Black Sunday” was an event caused by two major issues that New York tenants still deal with. One of them was electrical issues which started the event. But what ended the lives of two firefighters was subdivision in apartments. Once the four firefighters entered apartment 4L, one of them who was new to the area was confused at the sight of padlocks on the room doors that weren’t supposed to be there.

A further problem was that all the hydrants were frozen, there was no water. Suddenly, the firefighters noticed that the fire had gone through the wooden floors and started to reach up to where they were. They looked out the window and noticed that the fire escape was two floors down, and it was too far for them to jump. As the fire came closer, the firefighters lost one another through the flames and black smoke.

There was one group of three and one of two in different places in the apartment. A sixth man got lost. They pleaded for help through their walkie talkies, but ultimately had no option but to jump out of the windows. One by one they jumped out of a window and fell 50 feet to the pavement. Two firefighters died on impact. The other four survived with several serious injuries.

As firefighters, both Patrick and John were impacted by “Black Sunday”. They said that many buildings in the Bronx aren’t up to code. It puts them and the tenants at risk. Also, by working around the Bronx for many years they found  that many landlords are extremely cheap. Many of them don’t have money to properly maintain their buildings. The ones that do, still decide not to install sprinklers. The lack of maintenance has caused an increase of rats and other pests in the buildings.

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