Tragic Fires Prompt Legislative Response, Attention to Safety Challenges

Earlier this year, two of the deadliest residential fires in the U.S. occurred within a span of four days. Both of these fires occurred in federally subsidized affordable housing.

On Jan. 5, a fire broke out in a Philadelphia rowhouse owned by the public housing authority. The fire killed 12 people, including nine children.

Earlier this year, two of the deadliest residential fires in the U.S. occurred within a span of four days. Both of these fires occurred in federally subsidized affordable housing.

On Jan. 5, a fire broke out in a Philadelphia rowhouse owned by the public housing authority. The fire killed 12 people, including nine children.

Another fire occurred on Jan. 9 at a 19-story building in New York. The Bronx fire was in a privately owned, 120-unit apartment building that had 76 project-based vouchers in it. This fire took 17 lives, including eight children, and was the city's largest loss of life in a single fire in decades.

According to Philadelphia authorities, their investigation found that the blaze began when a child set fire to a Christmas tree on the second floor. The six smoke alarms in the unit were inoperable or had been disabled. And in New York, according to fire officials, the cause of the fire was a malfunctioning space heater. In addition, two self-closing doors had failed to shut, which provided a channel for toxic smoke to spread throughout the building.

Both incidents have highlighted the safety risks posed by aging buildings that often house low-income residents. Initial actions from legislators have focused on the condition, inspection, and ongoing maintenance of HUD-assisted housing. And recently lawmakers have introduced a federal fire safety legislative package. If this package passes and becomes law, you can expect to install sensors and meet requirements to inspect and certify on-site safety features.

Initial Legislative Scrutiny

Following the two fire-related tragedies, members of the Democratic House Committee on Financial Services sent a letter to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge. The letter highlighted the preventable nature of these recent tragedies, as well as the clear solutions. The members emphasized that the Build Back Better Act would provide historic levels of funding to address housing affordability and unsafe conditions in federally assisted housing. The committee also requested detailed information about the impacted communities and proactive preventive measures.

“Within less than a week, our nation has seen two significant fire-related tragedies that took the lives of people, including children, living in federally assisted housing located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Bronx, New York,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, this tragedy highlights the unsafe and inadequate housing conditions that too many families currently face across the country and our nation’s affordable housing crisis that forces families to accept such conditions. However, it is egregious that preventable life-threatening events continue to happen in housing supported by the federal governments. Every family should be able to live safely in their homes. This is a systemic issue that has a solution.”

The letter also asked HUD to submit detailed written responses to a series of questions:

  • How is HUD assisting in the process of relocating residents displaced by the fires in the Bronx and Philadelphia? What resources has HUD provided to families affected by the fire, including services such as counseling?
  • The property where the fire occurred in Philadelphia last received a Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) score of 33 out 100 during a 2017 inspection which also found life threatening and fire safety violations. The property has not received a follow-up REAC inspection since then. Please provide additional information on the following issues:

o   When a HUD-assisted property receives a failing REAC score, does HUD have any policies in place for accountability?

o   What is HUD doing to ensure more frequent REAC inspections of failing properties?

o   Of all HUD-assisted properties, how many received a failing score during their latest REAC inspection?

o   What percent of the total HUD-assisted portfolio does this represent?

o   Where are these properties located and are any of them geographically concentrated in certain communities?

  • In the case of the Bronx fire, 76 project-based vouchers were concentrated in the Twin Parks Northwest high-rise, which is a privately-owned apartment complex. What role does HUD, including its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), play in the determination and approval of where project-based vouchers are located? When a high threshold of project-based vouchers are located in a single property, how does that change the role of HUD and relevant Public Housing Authorities (PHA) in overseeing these properties?
  • In Philadelphia, one of the affected families included 14 members living in a 4-bedroom home and were on a waiting list for a 6-bedroom unit. How does HUD, including FHEO, work with PHAs to ensure families have access to housing that adequately accommodates the size of their household?
  • What role does HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity play in the relocation process to help families relocate to the communities of their choice?
  • During the coronavirus pandemic, HUD instituted a pause on inspections from March 2020 through June 2021. What is HUD doing to immediately address the backlog of inspections and ensure resident safety?

Fire Safety Bills Introduced

On Jan. 25, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Congressman Ritchie Torres announced a package of legislation addressing fire safety in assisted housing. The proposed measures would subsidize sprinkler installation in public and Section 8 housing, require self-closing doors, impose safety features on space heaters, and allow the U.S. Fire Administration to collect and distribute better data to local authorities. Here are the proposed bills:

Space heaters. A federal law to require space heaters to have an automatic shutoff and to require the Commission on Consumer Product Safety to establish mandatory safety standards for the manufacturing of space heaters.

Self-closing doors. A federal law requiring federally funded or regulated multifamily developments to have self-closing doors (on apartment units, stairwells, etc.) and requiring owners and operators to inspect and certify—under penalty of perjury, on a monthly basis—that the doors are properly functioning and self-closing.

Heat sensors. A federal law requiring the installation of heat sensors in all federally funded or regulated multifamily housing developments. HUD, as well as the state and local housing administrator, would receive real-time reports that flag when the level of heating in a unit is out of compliance with Housing Quality Standards when it comes to heat.

Compliance with all state and local building, fire, and housing codes. A federal law clarifying that federally funded or regulated multifamily housing developments are required to comply with state and local building, fire, and housing codes.

Housing Quality Standard (HQS) inspections. A federal law to require HUD to disclose the results of HQS inspections in a publicly searchable online database.

Share Space Heater Safety Tips with Households

The cold weather in many parts of the country brings with it the increased threat of fires due to the improper use of electric space heaters. According to the National Fire Protection Association, based on annual averages over a four-year period, most home heating fire deaths (81 percent) involved stationary or portable space heaters. And half of the home heating fire deaths were caused by having heating equipment too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses, or bedding.

To help keep your residents safe, it's a good idea to share with them a few safety guidelines for using space heaters. Include these tips in your site newsletter, in a resident memo, and on common area bulletin boards. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers the following space heater safety tips:

  • Make sure that the heater is placed on a level, hard, and nonflammable surface (such as ceramic tile floor), not on rugs or carpets or near bedding or drapes.
  • Keep the heater at least three feet from bedding, drapes, furniture, and other flammable materials.
  • Keep children and pets away from space heaters.
  • To reduce the risk of fire, never leave a space heater on when you go to sleep or place a space heater close to any sleeping person.
  • Never leave a space heater unattended; turn it off if you leave the area.
  • Never use extension cords to power electric heaters.
  • Use only a space heater that has been tested to the latest safety standards and certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, and that is equipped with automatic safety switches that turn off if the unit is tipped over accidentally.