Legislators Hold Hearing on Fire Safety, Inspection Standards in HUD Housing
NSPIRE standards’ implementation and pending legislation keeps the spotlight on resident safety.
On April 20, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance held a field hearing at Bronx Community College. The hearing was titled, “A Matter of Life and Death: Improving Fire Safety in Federally Assisted Housing.” It was held to discuss the fires that took place at the beginning of this year in the Bronx and Philadelphia at HUD-subsidized housing sites and the legislative--and HUD's--response in improving fire safety for residents.
The fire that broke out at the Twin Parks North West apartment building in the Bronx on Jan. 9 took the lives of 17 Bronx residents in what was New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades. All the victims, including eight children, were determined to have died from smoke inhalation. The 19-story apartment building includes 120 units, and the rents of 91 were assisted with Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs).
The New York Fire Department reported that the fire was caused by a malfunctioning space heater and has identified malfunctioning self-closing doors as a key factor in the loss of life and significant building damage. According to New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, “As [residents] left, they opened the door, and the door stayed open,” allowing smoke to travel throughout the building and creating deadly conditions.
New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) had issued at least two violation notices for faulty self-closing doors at the property in 2017 and 2019, but no self-closing door infractions had been issued to the high-rise since those violations were corrected. Federal law doesn’t limit the ability of local jurisdictions to implement or enforce more stringent laws or standards related to fire prevention and safety, and in addition to applicability of federal law, self-closing doors are required in all residential buildings in New York City as part of the New York City Housing Maintenance Code.
HPD conducts federal Housing Quality Standards (HQS) inspections at the development for the two apartment buildings that house families with HCVs, most recently in March 2021, but it reported that no self-closing door violations were issued as a result of the most recent inspection. More than 22,000 self-closing door violation notices were issued throughout New York City for other properties in the 2021 fiscal year.
The fire in the Bronx occurred within a week of a separate fire in public housing that occurred on Jan. 4, 2022, in Philadelphia and that claimed the lives of 12 residents, eight of whom were children. The property received a failing Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) score in its last inspection in 2017. A subsequent investigation by the Philadelphia Fire Department, working in collaboration with other federal and local agencies, identified fire safety concerns including nonfunctioning smoke alarms in the unit where the fire occurred. There were no sprinklers in the units, which aren’t required under federal law due to the building pre-dating The Fire Administration Authorization Act of 1992.
Current Federal Fire Safety Law
The Fire Administration Authorization Act of 1992 amended The Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 to explicitly promote the use of automatic sprinklers and require the installation of fire sprinklers in all new government-owned high-rise buildings, including in applicable federally assisted residential buildings. The law did not, however, require that older buildings be retrofitted with fire sprinklers unless they were undergoing a substantial renovation. In the case of federally assisted housing, there are a substantial number of units built before the date of compliance set by The Fire Administration Authorization Act.
According to estimates produced by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, there are approximately 570,403 public housing units not covered by the federal sprinkler requirement because they were built prior to the passage of the Fire Administration Authorization Act and haven’t undergone substantial renovation since that act. Based on a HUD analysis, if all buildings that weren’t covered by the Fire Administration Authorization Act were to be renovated with fire sprinklers, the cost would range from $1 billion to $5 billion.
Many public housing authorities recognize the benefit of installing such systems, but report that inadequate funding limits the number of upgrades they can make. In addition to requirements for new government-owned high-rise buildings, the Fire Administration Authorization Act required all dwelling units receiving housing assistance to be protected by hard-wired or battery-operated smoke detectors installed in compliance with National Fire Protection Association codes and standards.
Fire Safety, Inspection Standards in Federally Assisted Housing
“HUD takes very seriously the role we play in fire and safety standards in HUD-assisted housing. As a former NYCHA resident, I am extremely passionate on carrying forward this work that is a top priority for Secretary Fudge. HUD housing must be as safe, high quality, accessible, and available as any housing available to those households with greater economic means,” Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Regional Administrator, Region II, Department of Housing and Urban Development, testified.
All public housing and federally assisted multifamily sites are subject to Uniform Physical Condition Standards (UPCS), which serve as an inspection protocol to measure a property’s physical condition. Sites are generally inspected annually, but lower-risk sites may be inspected every two or every three years. The inspections are done through REAC, which HUD established in 1998 to provide accurate information assessing the condition of properties owned, insured, or subsidized by HUD. HUD provides a REAC score for each property, with a failing score being below 60 (out of 100). Any deficiency identified during an inspection that threatens the life, health, and safety of residents is required to be remediated within 24 to 72 hours.
In contrast, apartment units rented by households with a Housing Choice Voucher are subject to HQS instead of UPCS. Prior to a voucher holder moving into a unit, an HQS inspection typically must be completed, and the unit must meet basic requirements. HQS is a less rigorous scoring model than UPCS, as it covers only deficiencies in the unit being rented, rather than the entire property, including common areas.
REAC inspection backlog. During the hearing, Ampry-Samuel testified that HUD has inspected more than 37 percent of the 35,000 public housing and multifamily properties under its jurisdiction since physical inspections resumed in June 2021. And HUD is ahead of schedule to meet its goal of inspecting 100 percent of these properties by Sept. 30, 2023. HUD had postponed physical inspection on all properties due to the pandemic. It had restarted its inspection program in June 2021 and substantially increased the frequency of REAC inspections, particularly for failing properties.
NSPIRE implementation. HUD also testified it has made “tremendous progress on its efforts to substantially improve its physical inspections.” HUD is currently undergoing the first major update to its physical inspection model in 20 years with the development of the National Standards for the Physical Inspection of Real Estate (NSPIRE) demonstration to evaluate new models for assessing the physical conditions of federally assisted housing. This effort was undertaken after Congress directed HUD in 2015 to implement a single inspection protocol to evaluate HUD-assisted housing across multiple HUD programs to create a unified assessment of housing quality. In late 2019, REAC began to test the NSPIRE model developed under the demonstration with a pilot group of public housing agencies and owners of HUD-assisted properties. According to Ashley Sheriff, Acting Deputy Assistant, Real Estate Assessment Center, HUD hopes to have NSPIRE implemented by the end of calendar year 2023.
Ambry-Samuel wrote in her written testimony that the NSPIRE demonstration “includes several new and more stringent health and safety requirements for smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, fire doors, electrical systems, dryer exhausts, infestation, guardrails and handrails.” The NSPIRE standards would implement the National Fire Protection Association 72, which is the preeminent national standard for smoke detectors and fire signaling. It also would establish a minimum temperature requirement and require a permanent heating source, allowing residents to live more comfortably and ideally be less reliant on supplemental heat sources, such as space heaters, which can often be fire and carbon monoxide hazards. The proposed new standards, which should be available for public comment by fall, will also include:
- More stringent and specific fire safety door requirements;
- New fire sprinkler standards including for the proper functioning of these systems;
- New safety defects for GFCI & AFCI protection of electrical systems;
- Required carbon monoxide alarms; and
- New safety defects for dryer exhausts.
In addition to hearing from witnesses, the hearing's purpose was also to consider several bills affecting fire safety in federally assisted housing. The following bills are now open for Committee consideration, amendments, and votes:
- H.R. 6528, the “Housing Temperature Safety Act of 2022,” is a bill to require the installation of temperature sensors in federally assisted housing;
- H.R. 6529, the “Twin Parks North West Fire Safety Act of 2022,” is a bill to require the installation of self-closing doors in federally assisted housing;
- H.R. 3279, the “HUD Inspection Oversight Act of 2021,” is a bill that modifies inspection and oversight protocols under the HCV program, including by directing HUD to take certain enforcement actions when a property’s inspection score falls below a specific threshold;
- H.R. 6880, the “Choice in Affordable Housing Act of 2022” is a bill to improve the ability of HCV holders to access safe and decent affordable housing through grants to encourage landlord participation in the HCV program, as well as reforms to the HCV program.
- H.R. ____, the “Safe at Home Act of 2022,” is a discussion draft to unify and strengthen health and safety standards for HUD- and USDA-assisted housing;
- H.R. ____, is a discussion draft proposed by Congresswoman Madeleine Dean to require the installation of sealed, tamper-resistant smoke detectors in federally assisted housing, and to authorize $2 million for a public awareness campaign on health and safety features in housing;
- H.R. ____, the “Housing Inspections Accountability Act of 2022,” is a discussion draft by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to require HUD and USDA to submit annual reports to Congress regarding filed property inspections of federally assisted housing and to make such reports publicly available;
- H.R. ____, the “Consumer Protection for Tenants Act,” is a discussion draft by Representative Williams to authorize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to collect and address consumer complaints from renters, such as unlawful evictions or maintenance delays;
- H.R. 2638, the “Public Housing Fire Safety Act,” is a bill to create a grant program for public housing agencies to install automatic sprinkler systems.