By Mishael Williams

In 1956, The minimum temperature of apartments was raised from 65 degrees back to 68 degrees Farenheit in The New York Heat and Hot Water Code. It states: 

  • Between 6 AM and 10 PM, if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees, the inside temperature must be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Between 10 PM and 6 AM, the inside temperature must be at least 62 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. There is no outside temperature requirement.

This amendment of New York’s sanitary code added what is known as section 225, which was in response to an outcry from New Yorkers who suffered from lack of heat.  One of the many reasons for this was the Arab Oil embargo the United States faced, as The Washington Post points out in their article “The Deadly Bronx Fire Exposes The Perils and Politics of Heating One’s Home”. Not only did this have a major effect on gas prices, as there was a shortage of it, but it also caused issues with heating in apartments. Since there is a flat fee included for heat (it didn’t fluctuate based on outside conditions), landlords were getting paid the same amount of money that they were before the price of fuel rose to adequately heat apartments. So that same amount of money was being paid to fund a significantly more expensive effort. Because of this, many landlords abandoned their tenants in an effort to avoid profit loss, or they kept the apartments cold to purposefully drive tenants out. Struggling to afford oil to keep their tenants warm, many called for permission to increase rent or for a reduction of the minimum temperature required to centrally heat apartments. Many people across the United States were left suffering in the cold of their apartments, or they were forced to pack up and find somewhere else to live. When the Arab oil embargo began in 1973, The New York Housing Authority (NYCHA)’s oil bill almost doubled to $38 million the following year. 

According to the NFPA, (The National Fire Prevention Association) these are the leading causes for house fires: 

  • Cooking 
  • Heating Equipment
  • Electrical Fires
  • Intentional
  • Smoking Materials

The average direct property loss for each of these causes, according to Policy Genius, is anywhere between 500 million to 1.2 billion dollars. 

Landlords’ failure to provide adequate heating to their tenants poses a major problem because when tenants see that the landlords are failing to take care of the heat, they find ways to do it themselves. These ways include using stoves, ovens, and space heaters–all of which can lead to harm. Space heaters have commonly been unreliable in safely heating homes. According to the NFPA 45,000 fires have resulted from heating equipment. “Space heaters can be effective tools for heating smaller areas, but they need to be used with caution and care,” said Lorraine Carli, vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA.

There are similar concerns regarding the usage of ovens and stoves to heat apparments. Trina Smith and her two children, Steven and Tiana, were killed in a 1998 house fire in their appartment. They were asphyxiated, and when the scene was investigated it “appeared that fires on two burners atop the stove and another in its oven” used up so much oxygen in the room that the Smith family suffocated. And of course, the windows were closed so as not to let the heat out.

High-profile fire incidents like that of the Smith family’s calls for more attention to homes that do not receive adequate heating, and therefore have to resort to other methods of heating. As reported by the NFPA in 2022, space heaters continue to cause about 1,700 fires in the United States alone. In fatal house fires caused by heat, they are the culprits in 81% of them. As of today, April 20th, 2023, the U.S Fire Administration has reported that 841 civilian home fire fatalities have been reported by U.S news sources.