Regulatory policy

Fairmount fire: City officials propose policy change

Two weeks after the fire, the causes of the disaster which claimed the lives of 12 people are clear. The literal spark was a Christmas tree fire, an all too common occurrence during the holiday season. The larger context, however, was the growing mismatch between the nearly 25% of Philadelphia’s population who live in poverty and a housing market that cannot adequately meet their needs.

As City Council begins its 2022 session, some city residents have called for changes to protect other vulnerable families while others have gone door to door with donated fire alarms and hope help prevent the next fire. Meanwhile, on the first day of school, Council Speaker Darrell Clarke introduced a minor tax credit for homeowners who install fire escape rope ladders. The cash-strapped Philadelphia Housing Authority has hinted that it has no immediate plans to change its policy course.

Yet sometimes deadly disasters bring change.

“There are a lot of things that are really important to a city that take precedence over codes and standards until you see a building collapse or catch fire,” said Karl Fippinger, vice president of government relations for the city. ‘International Code Council. “We see very regularly that when people lose their lives [legislative and regulatory change follow].”

A look back at a recent deadly fire in the city may give an indication of what may follow. In 2018, an illegal rooming house in North Philadelphia burned down and four people lost their lives. But the changes made by policymakers in response were widely seen as lukewarm. Will this time be different?

“I’m not at all optimistic that anything significant will happen,” said Jenna Collins, attorney at Community Legal Services. “You would think that with two fires in such a short time, [policymakers] would focus not only on the fire code, but also on low-income and affordable housing issues. But I have no optimism. »

How to make homes safer

In 2018, the city council responded to the North Philadelphia fire by requiring legal rooming houses to install tamper-resistant hardwired smoke detectors, which would have done nothing for the off-the-books unit that turned out so deadly. The Department of Licensing and Inspections (L&I) has also stepped up its activities around illegal rooming houses, issuing more cease and desist orders to those operating outside the law.

The head of L&I at the time, Dave Perri, wanted to go further. Philadelphia’s current law makes it difficult to obtain zoning permits to operate rooming houses in much of the city, but it does nothing to create more subsidized housing or reduce the number of tenants in need. To meet demand, operators have simply set up shop in working-class neighborhoods in an illegal and largely unregulated manner.

Perri publicly proposed these policy changes without an immediate political sponsor. No one has ever visibly supported him.

“No one on city council has volunteered to champion the cause and expand the rooming houses in their neighborhood,” said Perri, who retired in 2020. “Nobody came out and said it. , but I feel like they didn’t want to deal with the backlash that might come from allowing more transient occupancies in largely owner-occupied situations.

In retirement, Perri also avidly followed news of the Fairmount fire and offered ideas on how best to respond.

He still thinks the city should move forward with rooming house reform as part of a broader effort to better regulate and monitor affordable market-priced housing in the city. But the Fairmount fire, and the even deadlier Bronx fire a few days later, prompt other needed reforms, he says.

These range from new infrastructure requirements to minor hard-to-enforce ideas like banning cut trees, i.e. natural Christmas trees, duplexes (artificial variety would still be allowed. ) Cut trees are already limited to all family dwellings except one and two. in Philadelphia, but given how incredibly flammable they are, Perri thinks they should be limited to single-family homes.

“If you try to ban them from a single-family home, you’ll end up creating a culture war,” Perri said. “But when you have a two-family situation, someone lives above you [Philly duplexes are mostly stacked not side-to-side]. There is a societal obligation to protect this other family.

Perri also wants hard-wired smoke detectors to replace battery-powered systems in all housing types. Normal detectors are too sensitive, prone to false alarms and resident tampering. In the Fairmount house, when the housing authority inspected the unit last year, the alarms were all working. When the fire occurred, most were no longer. To prevent more such tragedies, Perri says PHA, in particular, should install hard-wired units in the “dispersal site” homes it owns in the city.

The Fairmount home had no fire escape, a fact often noted in early reports of the fire. But Perri says that instead of focusing on that kind of hard-to-maintain infrastructure, he wants to see retroactive sprinkler installations in duplexes and multi-family buildings over two stories tall when they change leases ( or after seven years). The law currently requires that only new homes include sprinklers

In response to the Bronx fire, Perri suggests installing sprinklers in the hallways of high-rise homes. Installing fire suppression systems only in hallways would prevent a fire from spreading without requiring tenants to vacate their units during the construction period.

“The sprinkler systems are really the only way to stop the fire and make sure people can get out of the building alive,” Perri said. “If you’re going to spend on an escape route, you better take that money and put it into a fire suppression system.”