N.Y. Switches to Fire-Retardant Paint : Housing: It’s unclear if old oil-based paint encouraged fires or not, but after a blaze killed two people, city decided to take no chances. Some residents are angry it took so long.


Rosa Kelly’s apartment is getting a fresh coat of paint after a fire raced up 17 floors of her Harlem housing project and through her home. The paint may erase the soot, but not her anger.

City housing and fire officials knew for more than a year there might be a problem with the oil-based paint used in hundreds of projects.

But it took the deaths of two people Nov. 4--and minor injuries to dozens in five similar fires since June--to spur them to repaint stairways and halls with a latex-based, flame-retardant paint.

“I could have died, and they knew about this. They knew about it for a long time,” said Kelly, who was trapped in a smoke-filled hallway, unable to see her way to her door. “You bet I’m angry.”


The old paint was federally tested and approved. Whether it is especially flammable has not been established; chemical tests have been inconclusive.

But “we can’t wait any longer for answers,” said Housing Authority spokesman John Hamill.

“I guess somebody always has to die before it becomes important,” said Victor Roman, 21, a neighbor of Kelly’s. He was away earlier this month when the most recent stairwell fire barreled through a building in the General Grant houses. Kelly and 18 others suffered smoke inhalation.

Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger has urged the federal Housing Urban and Development Department to investigate why it took the city so long to act.

Hamill said housing officials theorize the stairwell fires were fueled by multiple layers of paint--the result of years of anti-graffiti campaigns--and fanned by chimney-like updrafts that occur in buildings more than 10 stories high.

Many other large cities switched to flame-retardant paint long ago.

Oil-based paint “may look better, like the difference between using semi-gloss or flat paint in your home,” said Newark, N.J., Housing Authority spokesman Harry Robinson. “But it’s not worth it.”

Only three other cities--St. Louis, Philadelphia and Chicago--still use the old paint, Hamill said. None of those cities have reported fire problems.

New York is spending $4.5 million to repaint the 550 project buildings that have oil-based paint; about 2,450 others have flame-retardant paint. Although flame-retardant paint is more expensive--$40 a gallon compared with $7 for oil-based--Hamill said cost was never a factor.

The city used oil-based paint because it was more durable, he said.

There have been 30 flash fires in the city’s 87 public housing developments since 1992. Fire investigators first notified housing officials of a potential paint problem in August, 1994, Hamill said.

Housing officials asked the National Institute of Science and Technology in October, 1994, if it knew of problems with the oil-based paint. The institute didn’t, but offered to perform tests to see if it was the paint or the layering that caused the flash fires, Hamill said.

Meanwhile, more stairwells went up in flames.

Most injuries were minor until Nov. 4, when a man and a woman were killed in the stairwell of the Frederick Douglass projects.

Fire officials said each blaze was started by burning garbage or debris in hallways. Many were set, but officials don’t suspect a serial arsonist.

Kelly, 46, took little comfort in knowing that the city was finally using flame-retardant paint in the stairwells of her building. Housing officials still might use the old paint in her apartment.

“Isn’t that crazy?” she said. “It makes me very, very scared.”