In the last few weeks, the sorry state of so much of America’s housing stock has resulted in deadly tragedies that have been reported as one-offs but when considered in the aggregate should inspire a national call to action.
Earlier this month, in the Bronx, a high-rise fire, that killed 17 people—eight of them children was blamed on a faulty space heater and the failure of two apartment doors to close automatically as required by the city Building Code.
In multiple press reports, tenants were quoted as complaining the building was plagued by poor maintenance and that they regularly relied on space heaters, boiling water, and leaving their stoves on to supplement inadequate building heat.
Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents the district where the blaze occurred, said the tragedy was emblematic of “a Tale of Two Cities,” telling WNYC, “If you live in a luxury building in Manhattan, you can take fire safety for granted. But if you live in an affordable-housing complex in the South Bronx, there’s no guarantee your building will have a sprinkler system. There is no guarantee you will have functioning fire alarms, smoke alarms, self-closing doors or safety knobs on your stove.”
ZOMBIES THAT KILL
On Monday night, three Baltimore firefighters were killed fighting a fire in a zombie home that had been unoccupied for over a decade and collapsed on them. Firefighters Kenny Lacayo, Kelsey Sadler, and Lt. Paul Butrim were working on the first floor when they were trapped after the drywall and framing gave way.
A fourth firefighter was also trapped but survived.
The Baltimore Sun reported that in 2015 there had been a fire at the same vacant home in which three firefighters were injured but did result in the house being condemned. The house had been put up for tax sale four times but had no takers.
“The homeowners had also received a citation in 2020 from the city housing department for failing to complete a required annual registration,” the newspaper reported.
And so, the house that would kill these firefighters, continued to stand for years as a monument to the multi-faceted failure at every level of our Stuck Nation. It’s a political economy that is completely rigged to protect even decrepit property, even though it presents a clear and present danger to the neighborhood and even to firefighters.
With that fire we lost three selfless individuals who were dedicated to protecting life and property. Yet the community, state and nation they swore an oath to serve lets zombie homes stand, even as millions of Americans are either homeless or shelter insecure.
EVERYTHING BUT THE ACTUAL CAUSE
In 2009, Elizabeth Fire Captain Gary Stephens, 57, was mortally injured when he was runover by a fire truck responding to a fire in a vacant home in that city, that had been the subject of numerous neighborhood complaints.
Two homeless men, who were living in the zombie home, were arrested. One of the men who admitted to starting the fire to stay warm, pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in jail. The second was convicted of trespassing and was sentenced to time served.
Because the incident was a line of duty death, the NJ Division of Fire Safety did an investigation that generated a 21 -page report captioned “career firefighter killed upon being run over by fire apparatus.”
“The purpose of firefighter casualty investigations is to report the causes of serious firefighter injuries or deaths and identify those measures which may be required to prevent the future occurrence of deaths and serious injuries under similar circumstances,” according to the report. “In some cases, new information may be developed, or old lessons reinforced, in an effort to prevent similar events in the future.”
There’s a passing reference to the cause of the fire being the result of “vagrants who gained access into the home and ignited combustible materials found in the home for a warming fire.”
The rest of the report puts the fire apparatus, the Elizabeth Fire Department’s training and its record keeping under a microscope and offers lessons learned, none of which included addressing the life and death consequences of letting homes sit vacant as community complaints pile up.
These stories are invariably datelined in poor neighborhoods of color that remain, more than a decade later, visibly scarred by the Great Recession.
ROTTING FROM BELOW
As has been widely reported, none of the Wall Street malefactors were ever held responsible for the collapse of residential property values on Main Street or MLK Boulevard that their greed engineered.
This hollowing out of so much of America was a bi-partisan achievement that included tax cuts for the .01 percent even as America’s housing crisis deepened. The Washington Beltway ignored the human and housing fallout even as they bailed out the very same banks whose greedy speculation created the crisis in the first place.
Of course, the national inattention to the zombie home crisis left it all up to local and county authorities, that all too often have been compromised by local real estate and banking interests.
Letting these structures rot in place had dire consequences for the rest of the neighborhood which saw their home values plummet. Squatters and drug dealers break into them and make them their own while the banks do their best to avoid taking responsibility for ownership.
And this willful neglect informed by systemic racism has deadly consequences for the most vulnerable among us.
Consider the 2012 blaze in Newark on Brookdale Ave. in the Vailsburg section where a vacant house caught fire and the flames spread to an adjoining residential property killing an adult and three children, a 3-year-old, 4-year-old, and 6-year-old.
In New Jersey, vacant homes in varying levels of disrepair remain a major problem with thousands of vacant zombie residential properties not just in the state’s urban core, but in suburban and rural areas as well. One national real estate tracking service reported that as of the fourth quarter of 2021, there were 1.3 million vacant residential properties in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reports that almost half of the country survey last October believes finding affordable housing is a “major problem” in their community.
“The survey reflects the steep rise in home prices and rents during the pandemic that are intensifying an existing housing crisis, particularly in major cities, where demand for housing outpaces available supply,” according to Pew. “Cities and states are scrambling to implement policies that stimulate housing production and encourage increased density in hopes of relieving pressure on the overheated housing market.”
This housing squeeze was a precondition of the pandemic and no doubt helps drive that horrific statistic the Rev. Dr. William Barber often cites that here in the U.S. every year, pre-pandemic, 250,000 Americans died from causes related to health care disparity and substandard housing.
Meanwhile, President Biden had to throw in the towel on his $1.8 trillion dollar Build Back Better agenda because he couldn’t even get all of his own party’s Senators to embrace it.
From the lap of luxury of the Beltway things look fine.
But the streets where zombie homes haunt the block, it’s always marginal and it’s most often the poor and our firefighters that pay the price.