Congress Seeks Answers on Deadly Philadelphia and Bronx Fires

Congress Seeks Answers on Deadly Philadelphia and Bronx Fires

In early January, a tragic rowhouse fire broke out and killed 12 people, including nine children. The rowhouse was one of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s “scattered site” properties. These are units throughout the city that are owned and managed by the authority but are not part of larger public housing complexes.

One level deeper: In the wake of the historically deadly fire in Philadelphia and another tragic fire in the Bronx that killed 17 people including eight children, the National Fire Protection Association organized a virtual panel including the Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel. He said fire-prevention measures such as installing more smoke alarms and retrofitting homes with sprinkler systems are important steps to reducing deaths and injuries, but “equity is a really important component of this.” He argued for policymakers to focus on one of the “root causes,” a dearth of safe, affordable housing. Both fires ranked among the deadliest the nation has seen in decades and took place in subsidized housing. Most of the residents of the Bronx apartment building used federal Section 8 vouchers.

The reaction: These fires have attracted scrutiny from legislators and put a spotlight on the condition, inspection, and ongoing maintenance of affordable housing. On Jan. 13, House Committee on Financial Services Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), and several members of the Committee, including Representatives Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Madeleine Dean (D-PA), sent letters to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge.

The letter asked, “During the coronavirus pandemic, HUD instituted a pause on inspections from March 2020 through June 2021. What is HUD doing to immediately address the backlog of inspections and ensure resident safety?” Coincidentally, the IRS recently announced that physical Inspection waivers are extended until June 30, 2022. State housing agencies, however, in consultation with public health experts, may extend this waiver as needed, but the waiver may not go beyond Dec. 31, 2022. Agencies will resume physical inspection upon the expiration of the waiver, but they are not required to make up physical inspections missed during the waiver period.

The letter to HUD Secretary Fudge also states, “The property where the fire occurred in Philadelphia last received a Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) score of 33 out 100 during a 2017 inspection which also found life threatening and fire safety violations. The property has not received a follow-up REAC inspection since then. Please provide additional information on the following issues:

  • When a HUD-assisted property receives a failing REAC score, does HUD have any policies in place for accountability?
  • What is HUD doing to ensure more frequent REAC inspections of failing properties?
  • Of all HUD-assisted properties, how many received a failing score during their latest REAC inspection?
  • What percent of the total HUD-assisted portfolio does this represent?
  • Where are these properties located and are any of them geographically concentrated in certain communities?