A few months ago, after e-bike batteries sent a multifamily building in Brooklyn up in flames, Jan Lee got a call.
As a licensed contractor, the Sunset Park building’s owners hoped Lee would be able to help them assess the repairs needed. It’s something he’s done before, but he said this was some of the worst damage he had ever seen. The fire started at the e-bike store on the ground floor and destroyed the store altogether. Firefighters arrived in time to save the building, but the water damage to the rental apartments above the store was bad enough that the tenants couldn’t stay, Lee said.
“I was just aghast,” said Lee, who is also a board member of landlord organization Small Property Owners of New York. “I was walking through the burned-out building, and my heart sank.”
By mid-November, more than 200 fires in New York City had been started by malfunctioning batteries and chargers for electronic bikes and scooters, according to the New York City Fire Department. The fires have caused six deaths this year alone, per FDNY, which doesn’t include an incident at a luxury Midtown East building when a scooter battery caused an inferno that injured more than 40 people.
The incidents have risen along with the vehicles’ adoption. Ownership surged during the pandemic in particular: Sales of e-bikes everywhere grew by 145% from 2019 to 2020 according to market research firm NPD Group.
But now, the prevalence of e-bikes and scooters in city buildings, and the fire risk they pose, is causing concern for residential property owners, many of whom are searching for a solution.
“As property owners, we always think of these things as not a single issue — it’s the combination of one thing, and another thing, then another thing,” Lee said. “We feel very much not just the financial stress, we are stressing over the danger of waking up to a fire alarm one day. That’s a very real possibility.”
The wave of e-bike blazes ripping through the city comes down to often-untested, second-use lithium-ion batteries or chargers for the vehicles, which have even exploded as riders are using them. Fires sparked by lithium-ion batteries are different than fires caused by other materials like gasoline or debris, The City previously reported: they overheat, combust when they can’t cool down, release toxic white smoke and can reignite after being extinguished.
Lee said he and SPONY’s other board members met with Council Member Keith Powers to advocate for a ban on untested batteries after dozens of small landlords who are part of SPONY raised concerns. Ideally, Lee said, landlords would like to be able to ban having e-bikes and scooters in the buildings, but are unclear on whether or not they’re allowed to.
Public landlords have also faced obstacles addressing fire risks posed by e-bikes. This summer, NYCHA moved to issue a blanket ban on storing the vehicles in its buildings three years after the Department of Investigation advised it to do so, The City previously reported.
But serious pushback ensued: NYC’s legion of food delivery workers, many of whom are low-income, rely on the bikes for their livelihoods. A few months later, NYCHA backed away from the ban, Streetsblog reported at the time.
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Legislation proposed by the city council’s Committee on Fire and Emergency Management in mid-October proposed a different set of solutions. Instead of banning e-bikes from buildings, council members proposed that the city should regulate the use of second-use batteries and disseminate information to the public about the dangers.
Unlike public housing and private landlords, residential condominium and co-operative boards can ban the electronic vehicles from buildings — and are already looking at ways to do exactly that, real estate lawyers told Bisnow.
When the city council proposed the bills this fall, Woods Lonergan PLLC Managing Partner James Woods said he started having conversations with condo and co-op boards all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Some are looking to ban e-bikes and scooters entirely from their buildings, he said, while others just want to know more about the risks before making decisions.
“I would say 80% of our clients are just looking to gather information, and disseminate safety information,” he said. “And I would say maybe about 20% of our clients are actually taking affirmative steps to put rules in the building.”
Leni Morrison Cummins, a partner at Cozen O’Connor and chair of the firm’s Condominiums & Cooperatives practice, said any changes that are happening right now are happening via changes to house rules — rather than amending proprietary leases or bylaws, which would require two-thirds of all residents in a co-op or condo building to vote in favor of a measure.
Some building boards are exploring bans for e-bikes using batteries that don’t meet safety standards known as UL standards, Morrison Cummins said.
“I think it might be a way that you can kind of split the baby for some buildings who are not really ready for the ban,” she said.
But for any building looking to change house rules or put bans in place, there’s another problem: making sure residents obey the rules.
“In a doorman building, that’s easy, right? A lot of times, especially with things that cause nuisance or fear, you’ll get just neighbors calling,” Morrison Cummins said. “A ban is only as good as the enforcement.”
Whether co-op neighbors or even NYC regulators are even able to spot second-use batteries, let alone force bans, is a concern for rental landlords like Lee. The long-term solution is both local and federal regulation to make sure batteries are up to UL standards, he said, and to find a way to make companies that use delivery workers — like DoorDash, UberEats and Grubhub — part of the solution.
“These are the mega-corporations that are benefiting every time somebody gets a delivery, because they are guaranteeing the speed of those deliveries. Why aren’t we holding them accountable for the expenses?” he said. “We absolutely cannot let them off the hook, because they are the No. 1 beneficiary of all of these people’s hard work. You have to have the feds step in to make this safe for everyone.”