Public housing

Fire Horror shows ‘life or death’ needs in Philadelphia public housing – NBC10 Philadelphia

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Although there were 26 people residing there, a three-story townhouse in Philadelphia that caught fire in a deadly fire that killed 12 people had no escape route. It wasn’t necessary, according to the city’s fire code.

Philadelphia does not require fire escapes in one- or two-family townhouses, licensing and inspections spokeswoman Karen Guss said. Also, while newer buildings require sprinkler systems, the house that caught fire — which is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority — was exempt because it was an older construction, Guss said.

The property, divided into two separate apartments, caught fire on Wednesday morning, killing eight children and four adults. Two others, a child and an adult, were left in critical condition.

“They would be alive today if they had sprinklers in this building,” said Glenn Corbett, a fire expert. He was the chairman of an expert panel that suggested dozens of reforms – including safety and fire prevention measures – following the 2013 collapse of a Salvation Army building of Philadelphia which left six dead and 13 injured.

There were six battery-powered smoke detectors installed in the home that caught fire on Wednesday, but none were operational at the time of the blaze, firefighters said. Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, said in a written statement on Wednesday that all smoke detectors were working properly when the property was last inspected in May last year.

The family moved in in 2011 and had been relocated there because their old house was too small, Jeremiah said. Over time, three daughters had children and the family grew, with three generations living under the same roof.

The rental agreement was for 20 people in the two units. One of the units was supposed to house 14 people, while the second was supposed to house six, Jeremiah said.

But while some wondered why there were so many people in one house, Jeremiah noted the dire need for affordable housing in the country’s poorest big city.

“It was actually an intact family that chose to live together. This is what we do. We are not chasing our family members, our loved ones who may not have other suitable housing options,” Jeremiah said.

He called the idea of ​​deporting people because their families grew “absurd”.

The house that burned was one of about 4,000 properties in the PHA’s “scattered sites” portfolio, Jeremiah said. These homes offer low-income families the opportunity to live in “gentrified neighborhoods that are rapidly losing affordability,” he noted.

The house is in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Ben Franklin Parkway, and has been gentrifying for decades.

Building new social housing or repairing what PHA already owns is a huge task, but a vital one for residents, Jeremiah said.

His agency currently has about $1.5 billion in deferred capital and maintenance needs, Jeremiah said, adding that public housing infrastructure across the country continues to deteriorate due to a lack of funding.

“So as conditions deteriorate nationwide, our families wait and wait and wait. They can’t wait any longer. It has become a matter of life and death for too many families, and this unfortunate and unimaginable tragedy underscores that,” said Jeremiah.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing is housing in which the occupant spends no more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs, including utilities. In 2019, more than 37 million renters and owners spent more than 30% of their income on housing, according to HUD.

Jeremiah called on lawmakers to pass President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better Act, which allocates $170 billion for affordable housing. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but is stalled in the Senate, where all Republicans and two conservative Democrats — Joe Manchin of Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — oppose it.

Meanwhile, local and federal investigators continue to probe what started the fire.

Investigative sources told NBC10 that a child was playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree before the fire. The child ran out of the house and told investigators the tree had caught fire, the sources said.

On Thursday, officials would not comment on details of the investigation, though they hinted at a full-scale investigation.

“What I can tell you is that this is a resource-intensive investigation. It’s an exceptional time – staffing, equipment, commitment – ​​to get to the origin and to cause of this tragedy,” Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Chief Dennis Merrigan said.