Days after a deadly fire at the Twin Parks apartment building killed 17 tenants last January, fire officials determined that the blaze was able to quickly sweep through the entire building due to a chimney effect created by self-closing doors that didn’t function.
What they didn’t know at the time was that this same exact issue had surfaced during a July 2019 state inspection of Twin Parks and another building down the street overseen by the same building manager, according to documents obtained by THE CITY via the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
Over two days, July 30th and 31st, state Homes & Community Renewal (HCR) inspectors performed a required annual check of the 19-story tower at 333 E. 181st St., the site of the deadly fire, as well as a six-story building at 355-365 E. 184th St. Both are called Twin Parks Northwest.
Both were managed by Reliant Realty Services (and still are) and both house lower-income residents who receive Section 8 rent subsidies. At the time of the 2019 inspection, the properties were owned by Cammeby’s International Group, which sold the assets to Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, LLC — a trio of owners consisting of Camber Property Group, Belveron Partners and LIHC Investment Group — in late 2019.
The state inspectors looked at tenant files, checked the building’s finances, observed the exterior and common area conditions, and randomly selected 14 apartments in the two buildings for a “physical review.”
The records show that in 10 of the 14 apartments, they found the same problem: “Front door does not self-close, adjust door return or spring/hinge.” Nine of the problem doors were at the 355-365 E. 184th St. address, one was at 333 E. 181st St., HCR officials told THE CITY.
New York requires that apartment entry doors in multi-unit buildings be equipped with working self-closing doors to prevent precisely what happened at Twin Parks from happening.
Fire officials believe the blaze started due to a faulty space heater on a lower floor, then spread throughout the building because that unit’s self-closing door didn’t work and the door was left open when the tenants fled. Another non-working self-closing stairwell door on an upper floor was also wide open, and between the two a kind of vacuum was created that allowed the fire to rocket to the upper floors, fire officials said.
During the July 2019 inspection, HCR inspectors cited the door issues and other problems such as broken bathroom vents, flaking paint and what they described as “vermin concerns.” As a result, HCR deemed that the apartments were “maintained below (federal) standards” and ordered immediate repairs.
In response, Reliant Realty Services provided HCR with closed work orders stating that the issues cited had been deemed “Urgent” and remedied.
In an Aug. 2, 2019 letter detailing HCR’s inspection findings, Anthea Martinez, the HCR “project manager” for the two Bronx Park Phase III buildings, documented the 10 entry doors with non-working self-closing mechanisms.
Reliant’s response to HCR only provided work orders addressing four units where self-closing doors were to be fixed, but HCR officials said all 10 doors were ultimately repaired.
Several of Reliant’s work orders had the word “Urgent” hand-scrawled across the top. In one unit, Reliant reported that about a week after HCR’s inspection, they’d repaired closet doors in the living room and a bedroom, replaced a door on a kitchen cabinet, and addressed a cockroach infestation that was affecting the “entire unit.” They also made sure the self-closing front door worked.
At the time, HCR officials promised an “internal review” of Twin Parks records. On Sunday, HCR spokesperson Brian Butry said the review “confirmed inspections were done properly according to federal compliance standards and our records show the building complex owner sent confirmation to HCR, in the form of completed work orders, that repairs were made to correct issues identified in the 2019 compliance inspections.”
THE CITY reached out Friday to Denise Velez, the Reliant employee who handled the response to HCR. James Yolles, a spokesperson for Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, responded. Yolles noted that the current owners did not own the property at the time of the July 2019 HCR inspection, although they continued to retain Reliant’s services.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our residents,” Yolles said. “Since we acquired the building on December 23, 2019, we have worked tirelessly to address any and all maintenance issues.”
Ten days after this article was first published, a spokesperson for Reliant, Mike Paffmann, sent THE CITY a statement: “When taking over a building, which we did less than a year prior to these inspections, we don’t have access to tenant units to inspect doors until annual inspections or agency inspections occur. We access units annually depending on the timing of the inspections. We were not granted access to these units prior to these inspections. As in this case, we always make every effort to promptly correct any deficiencies in a unit when we are granted access.”
There were five open housing code violations for broken or defective doors at Twin Parks when Bronx Park took over, and Yolles said all were closed by the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) as resolved by August 2020. HPD officials say there were no further door violations after 2019.
In the year leading up to the fire, the building’s owners had addressed 356 of 360 maintenance requests at Twin Parks, including two for malfunctioning doors. Yolles said tenants in the third-floor apartment where the fire started did not receive Section 8 vouchers, so their apartment was not subject to inspection by the city or state.
He said that last year the state inspected 46 units at Twin Parks, 35 of which passed. In the 11 that failed, none of the violations were for door problems and all were corrected before the fire, Yolles said.
THE CITY reached out to Reliant spokesperson Matthew Holladay Friday and Sunday but did not get a response. A message left Sunday for the prior owners, Cammeby’s International Group, was not returned.
Shortly after the fire, THE CITY observed Webster Locksmiths carrying brand-new apartment entry doors into Twin Parks. Asked if the firm replaced all the entry doors in the building, a manager at Webster said he couldn’t discuss his work there because “My attorney doesn’t want me to talk about this.”
THE CITY found more than 18,000 open self-closing door violations in 10,000 buildings across all five boroughs shortly after the fire. HPD considered three out of four of those violations “immediately hazardous,” yet there was no record of repair months after the owners were cited.
Five months after the conflagration at Twin Parks, the fire marshal has yet to issue a final report. U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-Bronx, created a task force of federal, state and local officials to examine how to improve fire safety.
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