This article was written by the team of NYC-based housing experts at nonprofit JustFix
Your landlord must take affirmative steps to protect you and your neighbors from the risk of fire.
Use our online tool to write a Letter of Complaint to your landlord
Renowned for its impressive apartment buildings constructed in the early 1900s, New York City’s dense housing stock places its residents at an elevated risk of loss of life and property from fires.
Poor maintenance of older electrical and gas systems often leads to life-threatening fires. During Heat Season especially — when landlords may fail to provide adequate heat — aging electrical systems may become overloaded by space heaters, increasing the risk of wintertime fires. Despite these risks, tenants have the power to hold their landlords accountable.
A landlord’s failure to protect tenants from fires can result in serious fines associated with violations of New York City’s housing code. But, the City won’t know about these violations unless tenants call 311 to report them. Here are some things to look for in your own building:
Self-Closing, Fire-Proof Doors: While most tenants only think about their doors during an accidental lockout, entrance doors must automatically close behind you. During a fire, self-closing doors and fire-proof doors prevent fire and smoke from traveling between apartments and floors. Because smoke inhalation is the number one cause of fire-related deaths, self-closing doors save lives. Failure to provide and maintain self-closing doors in a building with three or more residential units constitutes the most serious violation of the housing code (called a “Class ‘C’ violation”). Landlords must maintain self-closing doors in all public common areas (front doors, back doors, doors between stairwells) and post clear signage reminding tenants never to prop these doors open.
Smoke & Carbon Monoxide (“CO”) Detectors. Landlords must provide and install both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in all apartments and common areas. Many companies now produce a combined smoke and CO detector but double-check to make sure your building and apartment have both. Some landlords may try to charge you, but regardless of who ends up footing the bill in the end, the owner remains responsible for installing both smoke and CO detectors. Failure to pay these fees also cannot result in your eviction. Learn more about non-rent fees landlords may add to your rent bill.
Clear Building Exits and Fire Escapes. Garbage or debris accumulating near exit doors or on fire escapes also constitutes a housing code violation, even if the items blocking the way belong to building residents. While many tenants lacking green space use fire escapes to grow plants or situate outdoor furniture, landlords have a legal obligation to keep these areas clear for everyone’s safety. Remember you may not install an air conditioning unit in a fire escape window, and do not place a lock on fire escape window gates. Learn more about fire escapes and fire safety by reviewing New York City’s Local Law 11.
Stove knob covers. To prevent a gas leak that could lead to a building-wide explosion, owners must provide stove knob covers to every household with a gas stove and a child under the age of six. These knobs prevent young children from tampering with the knobs and releasing flammable gas.
If you see dangerous conditions in your apartment or the common areas of your building, report them to your landlord or management company right away. Because most fire-related conditions implicate residents’ bodily safety, take swift action if your landlord doesn’t respond right away. If you smell gas or see other imminent signs of danger, call 911 immediately.
Start a 311 campaign with your neighbors:* A 311 campaign–calling the City repeatedly with your neighbors over the course of a few weeks–will result in several City inspections. City inspectors, once they gain access to your apartment or building, will place housing code violations that could land your landlord on the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watch List. Calling 311 and reporting violations to New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”) creates a nearly irrefutable record of fire-related violations in your building. Particularly for issues in the common areas, calling 311 with your neighbors can draw HPD’s attention to imminent danger. In extreme cases, HPD may call your landlord directly or even make repairs and bill the landlord for their trouble through the Emergency Repairs Program. That kind of attention from the City may push even the worst slumlord to hire a contractor and repair the building. In addition to reporting violations to HPD, consider filing a complaint with the New York City Fire Department.
Send a Letter of Complaint:* For non-emergency fire safety concerns (like missing smoke or CO2 detectors), use JustFix’s Letter of Complaint tool to inform your landlord in an official manner. JustFix will generate a letter specific to your concerns and send it to your landlord, via certified mail, at no cost to you.
File a Rent Reduction: Rent stabilized and rent controlled tenants may have the right to a rent freeze or even a reduction in their rent due to dangerous conditions in their apartments and building common areas. To file a complaint online for your own apartment, fill out DHCR’s online complaint form and follow the instructions carefully. For common area complaints, file a building-wide complaint with your rent stabilized and rent controlled neighbors.
Start an HP Action:* If calling 311 or sending a letter of complaint doesn’t move your landlord to action, consider starting a lawsuit in housing court. Tenants have the right to sue their landlords for repairs and/or harassment in an “HP Action.” Groups of tenants may also file an HP Action together. To learn more about HP Actions, check out Housing Court Answers.
*KNOW THE RISK: If you are a “market tenant” (i.e. not NYCHA and not rent stabilized/controlled), you may have fewer protections against eviction or large rent increases.
Calling 311 or starting an HP Action may upset your landlord. An upset landlord could refuse to renew your lease or may increase your rent. This is illegal retaliation.
For a major fire, tenants may have no choice but to leave the building due to a “vacate order” placed by the City (either HPD or the Department of Buildings). HPD plays a key role in helping temporarily relocate tenants displaced by a fire. In order to get back into your apartment, consider filing a group HP Action with your neighbors.
If you are rent stabilized or rent controlled, immediately alert your landlord and New York State of your potential intent to return to your apartment by filing a $1.00 order with DHCR. Once DHCR issues an order to reduce your rent, pay $1.00 to your landlord every month to preserve your rights to the unit.
If the fire in your building results in damage but not a vacate order, consider taking all the steps described in this article to seek repairs in your apartment, starting with a 311 campaign along with your neighbors.
Exercise your rights by sending a customized letter to your landlord requesting repairs. We send the letter for free via USPS Certified Mail®.
Uncover the landlords filing the most eviction cases against New York City tenants. See if your landlord made this year’s list.