Co-op and Condo Boards Begin Tackling Fire Risk From E-Bikes

Bill Morris in Building Operations

Steven Sladkus was eating lunch outdoors at a restaurant on East 52nd Street a few weekends ago when he noticed a commotion down the block. “I saw all these people congregating in front of a highrise building and so many fire trucks it looked like a 10-alarm fire,” Sladkus recalls. “Soon I heard there was a fire caused by an e-bike. When people see firefighters lowering people down the outside of a building with ropes, that’s a big wake-up call.”

Sladkus is a partner at the law firm Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas, which represents some 300 co-op and condo boards. Soon after the Nov. 5 fire, which resulted in 43 injuries and was indeed caused by a lithium-ion battery used in an e-bike, Sladkus’s phone started ringing. 

“We were inundated with calls from co-op and condo boards,” he says. “People were starting to realize there has been a sharp increase in these fires from last year, and this fire put the issue front and center.”

The law firm sent an email blast to its clients, alerting them that the city council would be holding a hearing on Nov. 14 to consider several bills that address the spike in fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. There have been nearly 200 such fires so far this year, according to the Fire Department of New York, resulting in 139 injuries and six fatalities.

“I’m not advising my clients to change,” Sladkus says. “But if boards are concerned, we’ve come up with language to change the house rules, since amending the proprietary lease in a co-op or the bylaws in a condo requires approval of a super-majority of residents. If a board is looking to make an immediate change, we’re advising them to amend the house rules to prohibit e-bikes in the building.”

Stuart Saft, a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight and the chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, advocates a similar but slightly different approach. “It doesn’t seem to be worth the trouble to amend the proprietary lease or bylaws,” he says, “so I prepared an amendment to the house rules. It says residents and guests cannot bring e-bikes, scooters or other mobility devices that use lithium-ion batteries onto the property. If they do bring one in and it causes a fire, then the resident is responsible for damages. Period. It seems like a soft way to deal with the problem.” Wheelchairs that use lithium-ion batteries would be exempt from the ban, Saft adds. 

Hildalyn Colon Hernandez is an organizer with Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group that fights for the rights of food delivery workers, many of whom ride e-bikes for work. “I think the approach of banning is the wrong direction,” she tells CBS News. Instead, she suggests, the government should crack down on dysfunctional batteries and keep track of who is selling batteries. Many of the fires are caused by refurbished batteries or batteries that are not compatible with the charger

Cracking down on lithium-ion batteries is precisely the goal of several bills that were aired at the city council hearing on Nov. 14. One of the bills, introduced by Oswald Feliz of the Bronx, would ban the sale of all uncertified batteries that aren’t labeled by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. There would be a $1,000 fine per violation. Another bill, introduced by Gale Brewer of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, would ban second-hand lithium-ion batteries that have been reconstructed or rebuilt using cells recovered from used batteries. Violators would be fined $200 for a first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense. 

After witnessing the devastating fire on East 52nd Street, Sladkus stands by his advice for boards to ban devices that use lithium-ion batteries. “Nip the problem in the bud,” he says, “and don’t allow them at all.”

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