How To Make A Landlord Improve Fire Safety

In a building evacuation, the stairs are a resident’s lifeline. New York is specific with its rules about their placement, dimensions and lighting.

Q: I am concerned about evacuation safety in my 14-story Midtown rental building. The building has two passenger elevators and one service elevator. Recently, staff began locking the service elevator at night, leaving two working elevators for about 150 apartments. I worry that we we’ll need all the elevators in an emergency evacuation, because the stairwells are not a reliable alternative for older residents — they’re often dark because the light bulbs burn out, and the treads are narrow and slippery from high-gloss paint. Does management have a responsibility to keep our means of egress safe and navigable, and to keep all our elevators working regularly?

A: In the event of an emergency, you should not use an elevator for evacuation. You should use the stairs. Losing one of your three elevators at night might be an inconvenience, but it does not violate city rules, which require buildings five stories or taller to have one working elevator.

The city code does, however, include requirements about egress stairs in high-rise buildings, addressing their placement, dimensions and lighting. If you think the stairs pose a safety hazard, file a complaint with 311, and a Buildings Department inspector can investigate. You should also write a letter to building management expressing your concerns about the stairs, which puts the building on notice, especially if several tenants write similar ones.

“If there were to be an emergency situation, if somebody got hurt, or worse, then the fallout from that is going to result in lawsuits that are going to be targeted at management,” said Maxwell Breed, a real estate lawyer at the Manhattan law firm Warshaw Burstein. If the building has been informed that its stairs violate city safety codes and doesn’t make the necessary repairs, “that could be a real problem in terms of liability in the event of a catastrophic situation.”

While the out-of-commission service elevator doesn’t violate city rules, any tenants in the building with rent-stabilized leases could file an application with the state for a reduction in building-wide services, and potentially win a rent abatement.

“If they really felt aggrieved by it and it was something that has been historically available to them, there might be a basis for making a claim like that,” Mr. Breed said. “I’ve seen thinner claims.”

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