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Powerless Tenants and Landlord Raised Alarms About E-Bikes That Sparked Midtown Blaze

Eviction case sought to remove tenants from luxury 429 E. 52nd St. after complaints of “motorcycles” ridden and parked in halls. City Council is now considering bills to prevent destructive lithium-ion battery fires.

November 19, 2022 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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Long before a disastrous fire caused by exploding e-bike batteries erupted inside a Midtown East luxury apartment building at 429 E. 52nd St. in Manhattan last week, the alarm bells were ringing loudly regarding Apartment 20F.

For months, tenants had warned the building’s management about e-bikes parked in the hallway outside the unit where the fire started. In fact, the management company had been in court since 2021 trying to evict that apartment’s occupants.

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One of the lawsuit’s allegations was quite specific: some occupants of some apartments — including 20F — were “riding and/or parking motorcycles in public areas of the building, including the building’s courtyards, stairways, hallways and elevators.”

Fire marshals believe the occupants of 20F were operating a repair shop of sorts, which possibly explains why they found five e-bikes inside the unit.

The destructive fire on East 52nd Street, which injured dozens, is just one of nearly 200 so far this year the FDNY has linked to the potentially volatile batteries that power ubiquitous e-bikes and e-scooters delivery drivers rely on. The lithium-ion devices are often stored and charged inside apartments, openly.

The New York City Housing Authority, which has seen deadly fires, is considering banning the storage of the battery-powered devices inside NYCHA apartments, after discovering tenants using their units as ad hoc charging stations and repair shops for bikes and scooters.

The key issue is if lithium-ion batteries are damaged or aren’t properly maintained, they can suddenly burst into flame.

In 2020, the FDNY tracked 94 e-bike battery related fires, and 104 in 2021. But this year the number of incidents have skyrocketed, with 188 of these fires as of last week. These fires, which accelerate quickly, have done serious damage, causing six deaths and 139 injuries, including 38 at 429 E. 52nd St.

“We’re seeing an exponential increase over the last few years,” Deputy Assistant Chief Frank Leeb said standing outside the East 52nd Street building hours after the Nov. 5 fire. “These fires come without warning and when they do go on fire they’re so intense that any combustibles nearby will catch on fire.”

“That’s where this differs from what we’ve seen in the past,” he noted.

On Monday this growing threat will be the focus of a City Council hearing to vet several proposed bills that would bar the sale of batteries without safety certification, prevent the sale of used or damaged batteries, increase oversight of these devices, and require the FDNY to publish more information about battery-caused fires.

A pair of teens survived a fire at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village after climbing down a pipe, Feb. 1, 2022. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Secret subletters

The trouble at 429 E. 52nd St. first heated up in June 2021, when San Dar Associates, the rental building’s management, sued Corporate Habitat NY LLC, an entity that purports to rent out “long term luxury corporate housing” in New York City.

At the time the entity was leasing out 21 of the 289 units in the building, and San Dar alleged that Corporate Habitat wasn’t paying the rent on many of these apartments. Also the occupants of some of these units were driving residents of this upscale building crazy, the lawsuit charges.

The suit describes occupants of Corporate Habitat units generating marijuana smoke that seeped into neighbor’s apartments, playing loud music at all hours, and conveying or parking what San Dar described as “motorcycles” throughout the building. Apt. 20F was specifically cited.

On the 20th floor, all the tenants knew what was going on, according to one resident who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity. The tenant — who’s lived in the building for 37 years — said, “We who live on that floor all knew, because we saw them parked outside” apartment 20F.

On Thursday, San Dar Associates sent tenants a notice informing them about the lawsuit and the circumstances surrounding the occupants of the fire apartment, including the fact that they did not even know their names.

The letter stipulates that the suit seeks to evict Corporate Habitat “because the occupants of the apartment were annoying others in the building through the nature of their behavior in the common areas of the building.”

“Indeed we repeatedly demanded action by the tenant of the apartment to remove these occupants and make sure they acted appropriately,” the letter states.

San Dar also noted the presence of signs placed at all entrances stating that e-bikes and e-scooters are prohibited on premises, and they promised to continue their now 16-month-old court battle “so that appropriate relief can be awarded to us given the history of this tenant’s misuse of the apartment and the disastrous results caused by the apartment’s occupants.”

Lawyers for San Dar and Corporate Habitat did not respond to calls from THE CITY. Messages left with Amar Yaacov and Ahmad Youzbachi, listed as officers of Corporate Habitat, were also not returned.

Crew removing a mattress from 429 East 52nd Street on Friday morning after an e-bike battery sparked a fire. Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Heat wave

Fire Department officials say the e-bike blazes tend to have elements in common. They’ve seen multiple fires where tenants had stored and charged devices with these batteries — often many of them — inside apartments.

In May, fire marshals linked the cause of a three-alarm fire at 5401 Seventh Ave. in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to lithium-ion batteries. They discovered multiple e-bikes and e-scooters that had been charging at the site, one of which exploded and triggered the conflagration.

And in August, the FDNY discovered three battery-powered delivery bikes inside a sixth-floor apartment at the Robinson Houses, a NYCHA development in East Harlem where a fire erupted, killing a 5-year-old girl and her mother’s boyfriend and injuring three more, including a firefighter.

The FDNY warns that clustering multiple batteries is a very bad idea, particularly if the batteries themselves are not safely maintained.

“If you’re using these, they should be [fire safety] approved ones,” Leeb said. “You shouldn’t be buying after-market batteries. You shouldn’t be charging them when you’re not home.”

When the City Council made e-bikes and e-scooters legal in New York City in June 2020, there was no discussion at public hearings about what were at the time well-known fire safety concerns about the lithium-ion batteries that power these micro-mobility devices.

The Council is now getting around to addressing the obvious risks. On Monday, the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management is set to hold a hearing on five proposed bills that propose a variety of remedies.

Because these fires often start with damaged or poorly maintained batteries, a bill proposed by Councilmember Oswald Feliz (D-The Bronx) prohibits the sale of lithium-ion batteries unless they’ve been certified by a nationally recognized fire safety organization.

Another bill, proposed by Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), would ban the sale of “second-use” batteries that have been “assembled or reconditioned using cells removed from used batteries.”

“The fast rise in e-bike fires is incredibly concerning,” Feliz said. “Tragedies have been mostly caused by uncertified batteries that easily overcharge, overheat and explode, due to their poor design.”

Feliz noted that batteries that are certified fire safe generally have systems that automatically shut down charging when the battery is full or overheats.

How these bills would be enforced remains to be seen. Neither would prohibit the possession of potentially defective batteries — just the sale. Feliz stressed that “enforcement of these pieces of legislation is crucial,” and noted that “getting unsafe batteries off our streets might also require modifying the legislation to also prohibit possession of the unsafe batteries.”

Bills proposed by Brewer and Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens), would require the FDNY to roll out a more aggressive education campaign on the safe use and storage of these batteries, plus provide the public with detailed reports on all battery fires, consider changes to the fire code and examine the best practices of other jurisdictions that have wrestled with this issue.

Councilmember Alexa Aviles (D-Brooklyn) has proposed a bill that would require the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, working with FDNY, to launch a campaign to educate the delivery drivers who use these devices on proper storage and maintenance tactics to reduce the potential for disaster.

Food delivery apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash would be required to distribute the materials.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.


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