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Recent Public Housing Fires Are a Wake-Up Call for Reform

The tragedies in Philadelphia and the Bronx have put a spotlight back on the country’s deplorable housing market for the poorest families. Proposals to fix and fund the problem are on the table.

Firefighters cleaning up firefighting equipment on a street in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia fire department gathers up equipment at a rowhome on North 23rd Street near Ogden Street in Philadelphia, the scene of a fatal fire that killed 12 on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.
(Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Wykeisha Howe lives in Atlanta, but the context of the deadly fires in the Northeast earlier this month is very familiar to her.

In Philadelphia, on Jan. 5, a small boy playing with a lighter set his family’s Christmas tree ablaze. It burned fast and hot, spreading so quickly that despite the fire department’s rapid arrival only the child and one other member of the 14-person household survived.

How such a large family came to be living in a four-bedroom unit is easily explained. In a city where almost 25 percent of the population lives in poverty, safe and affordable housing is hard to find. The three-story duplex was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority: A few members of the family moved into the subsidized unit, then as others needed help they were welcomed too.

“We never dealt with a fire, but we dealt with a growing family,” says Howe, an activist in Atlanta who grew up in public housing as the oldest of 15 siblings. “Once they started closing down the projects, we were moving constantly. It was very challenging.”

Howe’s struggles with housing, including a spell of homelessness in 2018, have turned her into an advocate for affordability in a region where, historically, housing has been relatively cheap. But these days, many of the most economically vibrant parts of the South have seen real estate values explode and rents soar. Howe sees the struggles to find safe and affordable housing in the North echoed in the South — and wants to see policymakers do something.

The signs that change is badly needed have been coming fast in 2022. A few days after the Philadelphia fire, in New York City, a 19-story apartment building — backed by the federal Section 8 program — experienced a conflagration caused by a faulty space heater. Smoke from the original fire wafted up staircases, because security doors that were supposed to automatically close remained open. In the end, 17 died, most from smoke inhalation.

For renter and landlord advocates alike, these tragedies have triggered expectations of reform. Although it’s still too early for much new legislation or regulation to have been put into effect, everyone expects change. Building and fire code regulations are akin to the old saying about regulation of coal industry working conditions: “Safety laws are written with the blood of miners.”

“I’m sure it’s coming down the pike,” says Alexandra Alvarado, director of marketing and education with the American Apartment Owners Association. “Whenever something tragic like this happens, it pushes forward legislation that may have previously had a lot of opposition.”

There are several different avenues that reform advocates could potentially pursue, including fire safety specific regulations, occupancy restrictions, or zoning and subsidy efforts to encourage more affordable housing.

Fire and Building Code Tweaks

In older cities like Philadelphia and New York, where much of the housing stock predates the second World War, modern safety technologies have never been installed in many buildings.

The New York apartment building that burned actually dated from the 1970s and was an attempt to address many of the failures of traditional public housing, while the duplex in Philadelphia dated to the 1920s. Neither featured sprinkler systems, which are the strongest defense against home fires, or had fire escapes.

Housing industry groups have long argued that such technologies are too expensive to install without aid. As ProPublica has reported, the industry has poured tens of millions of dollars into state politics to fight off requirements to put sprinklers in new homes, where they cost less than half the price of installing them in older buildings.

The renovations required are so extensive that housing industry representatives say tenants would have to be moved out for the duration of the sprinkler fitting job.

“You’re looking at really high cost and apartment buildings aren’t necessarily prepared to incur a cost like that all of a sudden,” says Alvarado.

Traditionally, laws requiring sprinkler systems have given landlords 10 to 15 years to comply. But that kind of lengthy phased-in approach may no longer be feasible.

“It seems, at least from these tragedies, that we need something sooner than that,” says Alvarado. “The best way to do it faster is to incentivize the apartment building owners. Ultimately, sprinkler systems are going to be the most effective in preventing any sort of tragic death and building damage as well.”

At the federal level there are efforts to ease the burden for landlords. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill includes $2.75 billion in federal grants for fire and life safety upgrades. The High-Rise Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act seeks to amend the tax code to incentivize building owners with older units to install fire suppression systems.

There are other, less expensive fixes. Neither the New York nor Philadelphia fires were a result of kitchen blazes, but such incidents remain the top cause of household conflagration. Alvarado suggests requiring StoveTop FireStops — which are quite cheap — and emit a fire extinguisher-type material if a fire is sensed on the range.

In Philadelphia, the housing authority duplex sported many working fire alarms when it was last inspected. But most were battery-operated, the kind that residents are tempted to tamper with if they start chirping or prove sensitive to, say, cooking bacon.

Hardwired, interconnected smoke detectors that are tamper proof and threaded through an apartment building are an obvious alternative. Many localities have laws requiring they be installed eventually, but landlords may drag their feet due to the expense. Cash strapped housing authorities are just as prone to claim poverty, and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations allow battery operated varieties, which led to tragedy in Philadelphia.

“Hardwired smoke detectors should be mandatory,” says Rasheedah Phillips, director of housing with PolicyLink. “Under HUD regs, they can have battery operated smoke detectors or hardwired smoke detectors. That should not be an option.”

Fire escapes were not present at either scene, but the heavy, metal, exterior structures that are affixed to many apartments in cities like New York have fallen out of fashion. They are expensive to maintain and can become dangerous if neglected. In Philadelphia, the City Council president introduced a bill offering a tax credit to building owners who instead installed fire escape rope ladders.
A cleanup crew in white safety suits gathered outside a building in New York City after a fire.
Cleanup and recovery workers gather in front of a Bronx apartment building a day after a fire swept through the complex, killing 17 people and injuring dozens of others, many of them seriously, on Jan. 10, 2022, in New York City.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS)

Availability of Housing

In Atlanta, Howe wants to see policymakers focus more on the underlying problems that force so many poor people into dangerous housing. Overcrowding has long been a fact of life for working class and lower income families, from the tenements of the 19th century to the steel towns of the postwar boom to the tragedy in Fairmount.

“We just have to do what we have to do and that means, most of us, we double up,” says Howe. “We go live with loved ones. If somebody is experiencing some challenges, somebody else has to step up and help because that’s what we do.”

In Philadelphia, the housing authority was aware that the family in the duplex was overcrowded but they had no alternatives to offer. As affordable housing programs have stagnated, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit struggles to reach the poorest, lack of units (family size or otherwise) is a constant problem in American cities. The issue is one of subsidy, but it’s also about what’s allowed to be built.

The lack of decent affordable housing, market rate or subsidized, is a problem stoked everywhere by construction requirements that mandate single-family homes and parking requirements.

For the lowest income residents, single-room occupancy housing that used to be widely available — rooming houses and residential hotels — have long been banned from most American cities. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still exist. In cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, signs advertising “rooms for rent” can clearly be seen in many lower-income neighborhoods.

Most of these accommodations are unregulated and unmonitored, leading to fires and other tragedies. In the wake of a deadly rooming house blaze in 2018, Philadelphia’s chief of Licenses and Inspections pushed for legalized boarding houses in the city. But no city councilmember supported his proposal.

“Unfortunately, rooming houses have that old stigma as being a negative use,” says Dave Perri, the former L&I commissioner who has since retired. “They are the victims of past biases and poor reputation. And you have a lot of folks in single-family, residential areas that protect their single-family environment to the extreme extent.”

While rooming house reforms have not taken off, other kinds of zoning reforms have become increasingly popular. Eliminating single-family zoning, to allow property owners to build duplexes or triplexes, has been adopted by Minneapolis, Minn., and Oregon. Mandatory parking minimums, which drive up the cost of construction and housing, have been eliminated in cities like Hartford, Conn., and Buffalo, N.Y.

Zoning changes are needed to allow for the construction of affordable multifamily housing, but these kinds of regulatory changes alone are not enough to reach those most in need. For those with low enough incomes to make it into subsidized housing, no amount of market rate construction, perhaps outside the legalization of rooming houses, will be affordable. All of this is made even more difficult if you have kids, and especially if you have a lot of them.

“There’s really no affordable housing if you have a big family,” says Akira Rodriguez, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the Philadelphia fire, the housing authority knew the family wanted to move. But the waiting list for affordable housing had been frozen since 2013. It is not uncommon for tenants to wait so long for a voucher or a housing unit that their children age from infancy to their teen years in the interim.

“Everyone in that house should have had a voucher,” says Rodriguez. “They were together because someone has a voucher, or someone has public housing, and now everyone has it. At the federal level, we need to do more to get affordable housing to the people who need it.”

As of 2016, only 17 percent of those eligible for housing vouchers were able to receive them due to inadequate federal funding. Overall, only a quarter of low-income Americans receive housing assistance of any kind.

Biden’s Build Back Better bill includes funds to address affordable housing availability. The bill features $65 billion for public housing rehabilitation, which would help backstop housing authorities that have seen budget cuts for decades and have huge capital backlogs as a result.

It also contains $25 billion for Section 8 vouchers, almost enough to make the program universally accessible for everyone under 30 percent of area median income (based on a 2015 Congressional Budget Office estimate that showed the program would require an additional $29 billion annually to meet the need at that poverty level).

The political prospects of the bill are uncertain, at best, as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has expressed concern about its size in an era of rising inflation. At the state and local level, there have been efforts to supplement these rental voucher programs but they’ve been limited by pandemic-era budget vagaries and deficit limitations. Even under a best-case scenario, there is little chance even the richest state can meet the need without federal aid.

For Howe, in Atlanta, the reason for the woes she sees and the tragedies up north have a common theme.

“We don’t have people [in power] who really care about poor people,” says Howe. “These are very low-income families, that do work, and have children. But they’re being overlooked. They’re being pushed out and shipped all over this country. It’s so disheartening.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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