It’s not grandstanding; our housing system kills people
Low-quality housing kills
Short on time? Read to the red line for the highlights. Want to learn more? Items that are bolded in the top section are expanded upon beneath the red line.
In this issue, we’ll be looking at three local investigative series on low-quality housing. An ongoing series in the Fresno Bee investigates truly horrific conditions in low-income rental housing, including an apartment that lacked heat for two decades and cockroaches so numerous that running the microwave causes audible explosions of cockroaches behind the walls. But above the red line, we’ll focus only on stories where low-quality housing likely killed people; the fact that these stories are coming from across the country indicates a nation-wide, systemic problem. One disturbing article in that Fresno Bee series:
The widow of a tenant at Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno alleges her husband’s death was caused by pneumonia he caught during the month the family and hundreds of other tenants spent without heat this winter. She is suing the out-of-town landlord for wrongful death.
Tong Cha, 75, alleges her husband, Her Xa Lor, 78, became ill after the Nov. 12 shutoff of natural gas at the 220-unit complex. Lor died Jan. 2 at Saint Agnes Medical Center of respiratory failure caused by pneumonia, according to his death certificate.
“My husband was not sick before that period,” Cha told The Bee.
Substandard conditions for renters in that apartment building “included insect and rodent infestation, broken smoke alarms, damaged windows and faulty electrical systems.”
Image: X-ray imaging of a pneumonia patient’s lungs. The white areas in the lungs are infected with bacteria. Mikael Häggström / Wikimedia Commons
“Investigators labeled the building a ‘death trap’”
An exposé by the Chicago Tribune and Better Government Association:
City building inspectors had visited the 18-unit courtyard complex in Roseland more than two dozen times in the five years before the blaze, documenting more than 150 code violations. Just six months before the fire, inspectors once again found broken doors and missing smoke detectors — among other serious fire safety issues…
When firefighters made it into the apartment, they found the body of 7-year-old Eri’ana in a closet under a pile of clothes and her 11-year-old brother Shamarion slumped near an open window, according to police reports. The oldest — 15-year-old Carliysia — was found kneeling on the bed shielding the body of her 13-year-old brother, Carlvon. The back of Carliysia’s pink and red shirt had burned away.
“They were doomed,” said Rich Cooper, a since-retired Chicago Fire Department battalion chief in charge at the pre-dawn fire on Sept. 8, 2014. “A $5 smoke detector would have got them out of there 10 minutes earlier and they would have been fine.”
Broken doors and missing smoke detectors? Astonishing negligence. Another example from that article:
In Englewood, 56-year-old Evoughn Ware died in 2016 after faulty wiring in her small apartment sparked a wall of flames, thwarting her son’s attempts to reach her.
In the weeks before the fire, tenants in Ware’s building twice reported fire safety issues, including serious electrical problems and no smoke detectors, to city officials.
After the fire, investigators found no smoke detectors and the building’s front stairs blocked by the rooming house partitions. They labeled the building a “death trap.”
Coleman’s children are among at least 61 people — including 23 under the age of 17 — who died since 2014 in Chicago buildings where city officials knew of fire safety problems, sometimes for years, yet failed to crack down on property owners in time, an investigation by the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune has found.
They died in apartments the city knew lacked smoke detectors, in abandoned buildings the city was supposed to tear down, in homes where tenants had sought the city’s help because there was no heat…
From 2014 through 2019 there were 140 fatal fires in residential buildings in Chicago, killing 170 people. In 42 of these fires, which caused 61 deaths, the city had prior knowledge of fire safety issues that remained unfixed at the time of the blaze…
Oddly, the article focuses blame on the City. The city surely does deserve blame:
Responsibility for these failures lies with the city’s elected leaders, who cut back on inspections, eased regulations and failed to follow through on promises of reform after headline-making tragedies; with city lawyers and hearing officers who deferred to property owners; and with front-line inspectors and their bosses at the Department of Buildings — an agency created after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 specifically to prevent fire-related tragedies.
However, landlords are spared their ire; landlords aren’t really discussed until the second to last section of the lengthy article. It’s as though landlords are expected to act like sociopaths and it’s the City’s responsibility to protect people from them.
Low-quality housing also kills more slowly
Meanwhile, in the UK:
Premature death rates are much higher for those living in homes without proper heating or insulation during winter, while living in overcrowded housing increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, depression, and anxiety.
This problem is surely about to get worse.
Not a few bad apples, but a systemic problem
Below the red line, we’ll take a look at more from that Fresno Bee series, as well as an impressive investigation (1, 2) by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel into landlord neglect leading to fatal house fires with electrical ignition sources. In addition to tragic stories like the above investigation, the Journal Sentinel actually did a statistical analysis showing electrical fires are many times more likely in rental housing than owner-occupied housing; several times more likely in low-income rental housing than rental housing generally; conducted a random sampling of rental homes to obtain a statistically valid estimate that at least 80% of low-income rental housing in Milwaukee has dangerous electrical code violations; collected data showing that deaths in electrical fires are grossly undercounted; and reviewed a suite of landlord-friendly state laws that prevent the public from dealing with this problem.
In other words, the Journal Sentinel investigation has demonstrated with hard data what we all already knew: lethal, low-quality housing is a systemic problem that requires fundamental reforms of our housing system. It will do limited good to focus on enforcing existing laws because the problem is systemic and not a matter of a few bad apples.
But first, some older housing policy news we weren’t able to cover due to our hiatus:
Washington passed a law with massive impacts for renters. Landlords are forbidden from not renewing a lease without providing an approved reason for termination of tenancy. This is extraordinary; renters now have housing security approaching that of homeowners. Be sure to check out our interview with a German renter which has had these tenant rights (and more) for decades.
Washington becomes the first state to guarantee right to counsel: any Washington resident in eviction court at 200% of the poverty line or lower will be appointed an attorney to represent her.
King County, Washington is also in the process of buying multiple hotels to convert them into 1,600 units of permanent housing for the county’s homeless.
Soaring prices to buy a home mean many are shut out of the market. However, it’s far worse than prices simply becoming more and more unaffordable:
The housing market has experienced robust home price appreciation and tight supply over the past year. This is good news for sellers, many of whom are getting multiple offers on their homes, but it may be bad news for borrowers relying on loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). A recent survey by the National Association of Realtors of its agents found that 89 percent of sellers would be likely to accept an offer from a buyer with a conventional loan, but only 30 percent would be likely to accept an offer from a buyer using an FHA or VA loan. Meanwhile, 6 percent of sellers said they would not even consider an offer from an FHA or VA buyer.
A simple analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data shows that flat-out rejection of buyers seeking government-backed loans disadvantages households with lower incomes, lower credit scores, and less wealth, many of whom are people of color. As a result, it is more difficult for these borrowers to compete for homes, which exacerbates the racial homeownership gap.
Louisville, KY created a temporary (one year) right to counsel program, the 10th city to do so: funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, households with at least one child and at 125% or less of the federal poverty line are eligible.
When investors gobbled up properties in the Atlanta area, evictions shot up and white renters moved in to replace black renters.
Shelterforce has an excellent write-up of Baltimore’s tussle with a for-profit company and its sometimes-predatory security deposit alternative.
Maryland became the second state to pass a right to counsel law for tenants in eviction court.
A very impressive investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides hard data on fatal fires that started because of faulty wiring or other electrical problems. These stories are particularly heartbreaking because they are so easily preventable with competent electrician services.
First, there can be no question that landlord neglect is causing these disasters: they occur disproportionately in rental housing and disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods:
Electrical fires disproportionately ravage rental properties: A Journal Sentinel analysis of fires from 2009-19 showed that while an average of 30% of the city’s homes were renter-occupied, 62% of suspected electrical fires occurred in rental units. And nearly two-thirds of the fires took place in ZIP codes that are predominantly Black.
The poorest, least white neighborhoods are (of course) the most affected:
Fires suspected to be started by faulty electrical wiring scorch homes in Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP code at five times the rate of the rest of the city...the people affected the most: low-income Black renters.
As with many problems in our housing system, the Journal Sentinel shows that we don’t even have the data to understand the full extent of the problem:
While electrical fires account for an estimated 10% of all residential fires, they cause 18% of the fatalities, according to the National Fire Protection Association, an international nonprofit organization that conducts research on fires...But the association’s figures are significantly undercounted because they are dependent upon shoddy data and incomplete reporting from government entities, cloaking the full scope of the problem, the Journal Sentinel’s investigation found.[ ]In fact, the fire that killed Colston and Murrell wasn’t included in government data used to calculate the association's figures.
In a follow-up investigation, the Journal Sentinel looked deeper into the problem:
To better understand how pervasive — and overlooked — potentially hazardous electrical wiring is in rental units, the Journal Sentinel hired [electrician Bruce] Janczak to examine electrical systems at rental properties in the city’s most impoverished ZIP code, 53206, which has the highest rate of suspected electrical fires in Milwaukee. Suspected electrical fires ravage homes in 53206, which is 95% Black, at five times the rate of the rest of the city.
Janczak and reporters visited a random selection of 50 single- and two-family rental properties in June and July. Renters in 15 units agreed to participate in the study, inviting Janczak and the reporters inside.
The results: The Journal Sentinel found electrical fire hazards and significant electrical code violations in all but one of the properties. In total, the inspections uncovered 47 electrical code violations…Though the sample size of the Journal Sentinel-sponsored testing was limited [researcher John] Johnson said that [the study was statistically valid and] considering the margin of error, the study indicates at least 80% of the 3,300 single and two-family rental properties in the ZIP code studied have electrical code violations.
The only property without a code violation was owned by a not-for-profit organization. Again, there can be no question that landlord negligence — rather than the age of the buildings themselves — is causing these fires:
Old homes in affluent neighborhoods in Milwaukee County, for instance, have a far lower rate of suspected electrical fires than in poor areas, a Journal Sentinel analysis found. For example, in the city's section of 53211 where the median home value is $270,100 and the median construction year of single and two-family rentals is 1910, the rate of suspected electrical fires is more than 30 times lower than in 53206, where the median home value is $28,500 and the median construction year is 1913.
And in 53204, a predominantly white area on the south side of Milwaukee where the median home value is $58,800 and the median construction year is even older — 1895 — the rate of suspected electrical fires is three times lower than in 53206, according to the news organization's analysis. This is true even though the ZIP codes have roughly the same percentage of renters.
One of the heartbreaking stories they found:
A couple of days after she moved, Colston’s friend, 60-year-old Clarence Murrell, was helping her settle in. The pair were likely sleeping as calamity unfolded behind the walls. It was before dawn on a cold Saturday.
By the time the downstairs neighbor smelled it and called 911, it was too late. Thick, sooty smoke had filled the apartment. Firefighters found Colston and Murrell unconscious and were unable to resuscitate them.
Police and fire reports were clear: Fire was smoldering among the electrical wires in the space behind the walls. They suspected that’s where it started. Electrical testing was needed to confirm, they wrote.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, the fire was treated as a tragic accident.
Six blocks away, in the previous year, investigators found that faulty wires ignited a fire that ripped through another rental unit. The tenants had repeatedly complained to the landlord about sparking outlets, according to police reports.
And just this past April, fire devoured the top floor of another nearby duplex with a litany of unfixed electrical violations — so many that the city had issued a warrant for the landlord’s arrest.
Those fires, too, were considered mere accidents, despite the complaints, violations and what electricians say: Most electrical fires are predictable and preventable.
In Wisconsin, landlords are apparently free to regulate themselves:
Milwaukee once had several safeguards in place that helped detect dangerous wiring and other problems. But starting in 2011, a group of state lawmakers, some moonlighting as landlords, dismantled the safeguards in a series of sweeping laws promoting the interests of landlords…
“No landlord wants to wake up and see on the news they’ve had a fire and one of their tenants has died,” Giese [attorney for the landlord lobbyist group] said. “Do we need more inspections and new laws that require better electricity in older buildings? That depends on how many people are killed or injured in a year for whom such inspections would help.”
Colston’s nephew, 29-year-old Earl McDougle of Milwaukee, said he is shocked by how little anyone has cared about the deaths of his aunt and her friend.
“I still feel rage,” he said, “and feel like she still ain’t got justice.”
Also in the story: a family of four was left homeless after the home they were renting and all their possessions were destroyed by fire (the apartment was in such bad condition that — ironically — they had no heat in a frigid Wisconsin November). Let that sink in: a family with two small children lost all their possessions are homeless through no fault of their own. It’s an outrage that there wouldn’t be better resources to help people who had been through such a tragedy.
One renter the reporters spoke to said that the risk of electrical fires is so great that she unplugs everything before leaving her apartment.
Back in Fresno
Another article in that Fresno Bee series:
Inez Hernandez finally called Fresno city code enforcement in early February to inspect all the health and safety violations that she said the landlord hadn’t repaired in the six months since she paid $3,000 to move in.
Now, she and her children have been evicted. They have to be out by 6 a.m. Tuesday. The apartment still has mold; the heat and air conditioning unit is still broken; water still leaks through the floor to the apartment below, and burners on the stove still don’t work. On cold days, the family uses the oven for heat.
Code enforcement officers have been called to the complex at 3935 Effie Street more than a dozen times in just over two years for major habitability issues. They know landlord Joel Gutierrez.
Yet, for weeks, the City of Fresno failed to escalate enforcement to make Hernandez’s home safe to live in, and watched as Gutierrez evicted her — validating other tenants’ fears that reporting problems to the landlord or code enforcement will only result in retaliation or loss of housing.
The family was actually evicted without the landlord giving them notice they were being evicted; he simply filed, lied that he had properly served them notice, and because they didn’t show up to court they were evicted. It’s hard to defend yourself in court if nobody ever told you you’ve been taken to court. Another tenant went without a stove for 64 days, then was evicted for calling code enforcement (he had the right to do so based on not having a stove). Another went with broken windows for 77 days (this wasn’t cosmetic fractures; the windows were broken and freely let air pass through). Other tenants in that same building:
Parts of a building are literally crumbling at the 41-unit Manchester Arms apartment complex. In at least three apartments, water leaks through tiles and floorboards in kitchens and bathrooms into the ceilings of apartments below. Hot water for 21 units was shut off without notification six times since December 2019, when it was off for nearly a week and tenants were told to shower in a vacant unit.
In multiple interviews with The Fresno Bee, renters said they are fearful of retaliation from the landlord. They put up with health and safety issues — and rent increases — because it’s cheaper than trying to move, and they don’t have other options.
Moving is expensive. Moving may require changing a child’s school. There is a lack of housing in Fresno. And it’s even more difficult to find housing if you rely on public funding vouchers to subsidize rent. Tenants who lose low-income housing may end up homeless…
[Another tenant] said she doesn’t contact Gutierrez with maintenance problems or other issues anymore, because “every time I do, he sends me a notice.” She showed The Bee multiple three-day [eviction] notices sent by an agent of Gutierrez.
Another article in the series:
Jose Lopez, a 22-year-old resident of central Fresno’s Lowell neighborhood, used to think there was nothing he could do to get his landlord to fix long-standing issues at the apartment he has shared with his parents for more than 10 years. It had cockroaches, rats, cracks in the bathtub and mold. The water heater shut off every now and then. The heater never worked.
His farmworker parents didn’t complain – they knew something was wrong, but they feared retaliation.
Luis Decubas keeps a tightly rolled pack of 17 mice in his freezer. It’s proof of the pests contaminating the three-bedroom apartment in southeast Fresno that he shares with his wife and four children.
When he opens a kitchen cabinet, dozens of cockroaches fly out. Sometimes when the family wakes up at night, they can feel cockroaches tickling the inside of their ears.
The $650-a-month apartment has other problems: exposed wires, holes in walls, faulty electric outlets, mold…
He moves the fridge and stove once a month to sweep up hundreds of cockroach skins. His wife uses bleach, soap and water to wipe the cupboards. When they warm food in the microwave, cockroaches inside the unit’s walls make popping noises as they explode...Altogether, the [couple who owns the multi-family apartment building] have paid the city $1,527 for code violations [for hundreds of code violations].
Another from the series:
Some families say they have suffered 2-1/2 years without heat, a month with the toilet emptying onto the floor, four months with an electrical short that cut off half the power and resulted in a fire.
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