Bill Morris in Building Operations on May 5, 2022
In New York City, tragedies give birth to laws. It happened in 1979, when a chunk of a building fell to a sidewalk on Upper Broadway and killed a college student, moving the City Council to enact Local Law 10. It required building owners, including co-op and condo boards, to perform regular inspections and repairs of facades. The law later morphed into Local Law 11 and is now known as the Facade Inspection and Safety Program.
It happened again in 2017, when the City Council, responding to fatal elevator accidents, passed a law requiring door-lock monitors and emergency brakes in many elevators.
And it happened most recently on Jan. 9 of this year, when a fire inside an apartment in the Twin Parks building in the Bronx sent smoke gushing into hallways and stairwells, killing 17 people, including eight children. The source of the blaze was a malfunctioning space heater — a common backup in buildings with erratic central heating. The blaze was confined to the apartment, but lethal smoke was able to spread throughout the building because neither the apartment door nor the stairwell door closed properly, as required by law.
This latest tragedy has inspired a raft of new bills before the City Council that would do the following; prohibit the sale of space heaters that do not have thermostats and automatic shutoff mechanisms; clarify that all doors providing access to interior corridors and stair wells must be self-closing; require the department of Housing Preservation and Development to inspect all self-closing doors in common areas every two years; and, most controversially, require the minimum temperature inside apartment buildings to rise from 68 to 70 degrees during the day and from 62 to 66 degrees at night during the heating season, which runs from Oct. 1 through May 31.
This last bill has triggered vigorous backlash from a variety of real estate interests, including co-op and condo advocates. At an April 6 hearing before the City Council, those interests took turns spelling out their reasons for opposing the “thermostat bill,” which will soon go to a vote of the full council.
Their opposition boils down to a central irony. At a time when the city is getting ready to impose stiff fines on buildings that fail to reduce carbon emissions enough to satisfy the Climate Mobilization Act (Local Law 97), the mandate to raise temperatures inside buildings would require buildings to use more energy, thus increasing their carbon emissions. Rarely have two laws worked at such obvious cross-purposes.
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Leading the charge at the April 6 hearing was the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which stated: “Raising minimum temperature requirements may seem like a reasonable and pragmatic solution to reduce the use of space heaters that can pose fire risks. However, this legislation has significant unintended consequences that must be fully evaluated, including substantial additional energy use and related carbon emissions and costs. In addition, evidence demonstrates that raising the temperature as outlined in the bill may not actually increase indoor comfort in many buildings.”
This last claim was buttressed by testimony from the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC): “The industry standard for comfort conditions, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers 55, sets in place comfort criteria which are likely to satisfy most occupants. The current daytime set point of 68 degrees is well within the ASHRAE 55 comfort criteria and does not necessarily create an uncomfortable space.” Instead of mandating warmer buildings, the ACEC urged the City Council to enforce existing regulations.
Others testifying against the bill included the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums; the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 building owners and managers; the New York State Association for Affordable Housing; and the Queens & Bronx Building Association.
Additional opposition comes from the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council, which represents more than 100,000 units of housing in the city. Bob Friedrich, the group’s co-president — and the co-op board president at Glen Oaks Village in Queens — said in a statement: “Many co-op boards are struggling to figure out how to comply with Local Law 97 and avoid crushing penalties. This statute would make that task impossible.”
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