Burning Down the House

firepatchOver the past couple of days, there has been a couple articles1,2 in the Ann Arbor news about a downtown property owner refusing to allow the Fire Marshall to inspect his downtown properties.  You may have seen some of my comments under the first article asking some questions about the policy.  A very informative commenter with the pseudonym “Dice” answered some questions for me, but the exchange got me thinking, so I thought I would write about it.

First, I want to say that I am all for safety and would never say that anyone should refuse fire inspections of any kind.  Safety inspections of any kind are always important even when some (or most) people think they may be a waste of time.  I am not going to waste space arguing when, how often or why these need to be done.  I am also not going to give time to arguing over how much the fees should be, what is appropriate, or who should pay for the inspections (the city through taxes or the property owner).

What I do want to talk about is the issue of why only commercial businesses have to have this  fire inspection.

Why not multi-unit rental houses too?

One of my biggest pet peeves in this town is the fact that not many people seem to care that many of the students who live in the houses that are chopped up into small apartments near campus are living in death traps.  Many of these houses are old, over occupied, and have been rarely updated to modern building codes, let alone fire codes.  It is a problem that everyone likes to pretend does not exist.

I know….I know, some of you landlords are taking offense to my statements because you are responsible and take great care of your rental houses.  So, if you are a responsible landlord, then good for you, maybe you can rub off on your peers; this post is not about you really.

Under Ryan Stanton’s article “Standoff continues between downtown property owner and Ann Arbor fire inspectors.” 1, I posted a comment asking about why only commercial properties and not rentals houses were included in these inspections.  Ryan said this:

The answer I got from the folks in the department was commercial building fires have more potential to have a devastating impact on the community and other people, not just the individual owner, because a fire in a downtown building/business can spread to other buildings/businesses/apartments, etc.

Really?  On this surface this appears to make sense, but in this city we have old, wood rental houses built very close together.  To me there is just as great a risk of having an entire block of houses burning down.

If these fire inspections of commercial properties was really just about safety, why hasn’t anybody actually thought to include rental houses?  For me, that is where the real danger lies.  The greatest risk of fire is where a person sleeps, not where the sit or shop all day.  All tenants, whether it is an office, shop or residence rely on a landlord who may run a large building where the tenant might be just one of many occupants.  A big difference for residential tenants is that sleep where they rent, which puts the tenant at a greater risk in a fire.

Now, I do believe that single family rental homes are a different case than a multi-unit rental home , simply because the tenant has control of what happens in the entire dwelling.  Multi-unit buildings have tenants that are at risk from other tenant’s actions or by negligent landlords that may have fire risks in a locked basement for example.

I hate to say it, but the fire inspection does have the appearance of being a money generator…even if it’s not.  In my opinion, if this was just about safety, I would think that the fire safety of the multi-unit, rental housing near campus would have been included with this policy.  However, maybe it never crossed anyone’s minds…which is hard to believe…but who knows.

From what I can gather from what I read in the article and the comments is this:
(Keep in mind I can’t find references for any of this, so if I got something wrong email me and I can update my thought s here.)

Residential properties get their fire inspection included in their building inspection when they get their certificate of occupancy  (C of O) issued. Residential properties get inspected every 2-3 years or when there are permits pulled for major renovations.

Commercial properties get a building inspected when there is a change in occupancy, but have  a separate fire inspection.

My question is why the difference?  Why not have one policy for both?  Obviously this does not include single family occupied homes because we don’t have C 0f O for those.  Are fire inspectors more strict than a building inspector?  Are the costs equitable between the two inspections? Supposedly both inspectors  use the same 2009 International Fire code. This raises an issue of fairness or equality

Rental houses are businesses too.  So why don’t they require these separate fire inspections? I would bet that some of these landlords who own many properties have a higher income than some of the small business owners that are required to pay the fire inspection fees.  So this can’t be about commercial businesses having more income and writing off the fees as the cost of doing business….landlords can do that too.

I hope that someone looks into this.  I am actually not sure if adding a separate fire inspection for multi-unit rental houses is even possible…..maybe one of you readers know the answer to that. But I hope that something can be done to verify the safety of the rental student housing stock.  We have quite a few fires in the student neighborhoods, including one just a couple weeks ago at a fraternity house.

10-22-08 Fire AAFD 013You see, I was a student at UM (many years ago) and lived in a couple of the old houses/apartments.  I also visited many of these houses over the years when I was a student. There were illegal bedrooms in basements, closets made into bedrooms, over occupancy of units.  Although that was awhile ago, I can attest to the condition of many of these houses ( I lived it)….which was not great.  I would be surprised if these have been updated over the years.  I always laugh when some residents in town get all wound up about the beauty in these student ‘historic’ houses.  If only they saw what was inside them.  Maybe the students will share one day by videoing their apartments and sharing the video on youtube.  Students live in these places because they have to, not because they want to.  Those that can afford to, move into the new student highrises.

Maybe the one good think about the downtown property owners refusing inspections is that we can start the discussion about fairness of this policy, and whether multi-unit rental housing should be included in the policy.

Now I know some of you are still thinking that the student rental housing is not all that bad…if it was the students would not live there.  I beg to differ.  Students live there because of the lack of options near campus.

But if you still want to believe that the multi-unit student houses that are chopped up into small apartments are just fine and fire safe, then I have some dioxane laced swamp land in Scio Township to sell you.

omnes domum cedite

-MOTL

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1 Ryan Stanton, “Standoff continues between downtown property owner and Ann Arbor fire inspectors.”  February 16, 2014.

2 Ryan Stanton, “City attorney: City will conduct fire inspections with or without property owner’s consent.”  February 17, 2014

http://www.a2gov.org/government/safetyservices/fire/Pages/photo-gallery.aspx

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