Three weeks ago, City Limits wrote about the recent Bed-Stuy fire that killed 13-year-old Ashley Simms. The city housing agency had known for 10 months that the sprinklers at 27 Brevoort Place weren't working–an “emergency” level violation of housing codes–but failed to either force the landlord to fix them or make the repairs itself. When a fire ripped through the townhouse on July 22, the sprinklers didn't work. Simms died in the flames and 17 others were injured.
Last week, both the mayor and the City Council Speaker blasted the city housing agency's sloppy oversight. “Somebody blew it,” said the mayor. “[Housing agency staff] should have done a better job here.”
But this wasn't a random mistake or a case that slipped through the cracks. It was the logical result of a long-standing policy of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development–a policy that directs inspectors to simply ignore serious housing code violations when they can't get access to buildings.
HPD inspectors often have trouble getting into buildings in order to check that repairs have been made. So the department adopted a simple rule: If an inspector goes to a building twice to check on repairs and can't get in both times, he can simply forget about the problem, write it off in his records as “deemed in compliance,” and close the case. That's true even if it's considered an “emergency” violation–for example, a building like 27 Brevoort Place that had neither functioning sprinklers nor fire escapes.
It makes HPD's records look good, it makes landlords happy, and it means more inspectors can visit more buildings in a shorter amount of time. But it doesn't do much to protect tenants. “We've been screaming for years about it, and it's not until a fatal fire that some light gets shed on this,” said Joe Corso, head of the Allied Building Inspectors Union.
HPD says it has now changed the policy. But for the families caught in the fire, that's not enough. “I want to see someone held accountable,” said Bonnie Anthony, whose son's family lost nearly everything in the blaze. “It's a shame how long the city victimized them.”
The City Council plans to hold a hearing on this fire and HPD's code enforcement system on September 11.