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The Bronx fire proves infrastructure spending is always about life and death

Officials said a malfunctioned space heater and unmet safety requirements caused a deadly apartment fire in New York, underscoring the fatal costs of poor infrastructure.

A malfunctioning space heater coupled with unmet safety requirements most likely caused an apartment building fire that killed at least 17 people in New York City on Sunday, officials said. It was the city's most lethal blaze in three decades. 

The news is enough to drive a New Yorker mad — particularly, this New Yorker. It’s a prime example of how the city’s inequality can reap deadly results, and it’s a reminder that the national debate over infrastructure spending has life-and-death implications. 

Daniel Nigro, the city's fire commissioner, said the Bronx building’s stairwells were “very dangerous" during the fire due to the smoke billowing inside them. He said the door to the apartment where the fire started and the door to a stairwell on the 15th floor did not automatically close as they should have. Both Nigro and New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the door issues amounted to a “maintenance failure” that allowed smoke from the fire to spread throughout the building. 

New York City law requires most apartment doors to close automatically. 

What's more, the 19-story apartment building did not have fire escapes or a building-wide sprinkler system, as allowed under the law when it was constructed in 1972.

Firefighters hoist a ladder to rescue residents after a fire broke out inside an apartment building in the Bronx on Jan. 9. Theodore Parisienne / New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It’s impossible to separate this tragedy from the debate over infrastructure investment that unfurled across America in the last year. In mainstream news outlets, the debate over government spending — especially when it came to infrastructure and social welfare projects — is often reduced to a mere political spat. When Congress was attempting to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, for example, many outlets deferred to conservative rhetoric that was laser-focused on the bill’s size. “Progressives want X, and conservatives demur,” the coverage would say

And that kind of coverage was rarely desperate enough. It almost never accounted for the fact that in a country where buildings are filling with smoke, conservative spending levels are a death sentence to some. 

The House version of the bipartisan infrastructure bill included $327 billion for housing, but the final version stripped that number down to $150 billion. And conservatives were rarely taken to task for the ways their uniform opposition to infrastructure spending could condemn Americans to death. 

Some outdated homes in the U.S. are especially susceptible to deadly fires while others are dangerously at risk for dangerous flooding. Unpaved roads and rickety bridges and dilapidated water pipes all pose similarly fatal risks to Americans who use them. These aren’t progressive pet projects — and they’re not the socialist Trojan horses many conservatives claim them to be. 

They’re the foundation of American life for millions, and refusing to invest in them heartily is an insult to those who will have to live — or die — with the consequences.

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