A blocked fire escape. No sprinkler system. A letter describing the building as a “death trap.”
The fire that ripped through a North End rooming house last week, leaving two dead and one in critical condition, was ruled an accident. But the 31-unit building had multiple fire code violations at the time of the deadly blaze, the fire department confirmed Wednesday.
An automatic sprinkler system, which is required under the city’s fire code, was not installed despite repeated warnings from the fire department ordering the property owners to install one. The city last year even threatened to revoke the license to operate as a rooming house for failing to comply with fire code.
But despite the violation, the city licensing board granted the rotating cast listed as owners of the now-demolished building a “license to keep a lodging house” each year records were made available — most recently in May of 2022, according to city records.
The lack of compliance with “sprinkler law” is a widespread issue in New Bedford’s rooming houses. The city adopted the law requiring sprinkler systems in the high-occupancy buildings in 2013 and began enforcing the law after a five-year grace period in 2018. But as of this year, about two-thirds of the 33 buildings licensed by the city to operate as rooming houses currently fail to comply with that law, according to the fire department.
“We don’t take these things lightly,” New Bedford Fire Chief Scott Kruger said in an interview Wednesday. The mayor and Chief Kruger met on Wednesday to discuss efforts to bring rooming houses into compliance with fire code and prevent future fires, according to the mayor’s chief of staff.
“We absolutely want to find a way to get the rooming houses into compliance with sprinkler law,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said on Wednesday. “We are going to pursue this as aggressively as the law allows us.”
But they say it’s a process impeded by legal barriers, pandemic-related supply chain issues and high installation costs for properties with often low-income tenants. Moving to shut down a rooming house based on fire code violations could also mean tenants lose their homes. Mayor Mitchell said it’s a complex equation.
“When we consider our enforcement options, we have to consider we don’t want people in the street, either,” he said. “For some, these [rooming houses] are the next best thing to being out on the street or being in a shelter.”
The property owners at the time of the fire had applied for a permit to install a sprinkler system on Feb. 23, 2023 — about one month before the fire — and had received an estimate for the price of installation the year prior. The cost, if it had been installed, would have been $85,588, according to emails sent to the city by the owners.
Rent for each one-room unit was listed at $170 per week at the time of the fire. Former tenants able to escape the building, who asked not to be identified, said they lived there for the cheap rent and never thought about the building’s fire safety conditions.
For others, it was a concern. An email sent to the mayor, the fire chief and the city’s building inspector in July of 2022 called the building a “death trap,” and listed a handful of code violations that had not been caught the month prior, when building inspector Robert Carreiro did his own inspection that listed a dozen other violations.
Those concerns, sent in the July email by a person whose name was redacted, included: “doors nailed shut,” “smoke alarms missing,” and “inadequate fire escape with trap door.” The email included photos of what the sender described as fire code violations.
The fire department inspected the building the week after the July email and worked with the property manager to correct the violations, according to the fire department. “All violations were corrected. The fire alarm system worked appropriately the day of the fire,” a captain in the department’s fire prevention bureau who led the inspection wrote to the chief in an email following the fire.
But at the time of the fire, a “board or plank” was blocking the hatch to the fire escape, Chief Kruger confirmed. The fire department discovered the structure blocking the fire escape, which he described as a fire code violation, after the fire. The mayor’s chief of staff clarified that it’s possible the property manager or a tenant had blocked the fire escape after the fire department’s most recent inspection.
The city was reluctant to confirm the building’s fire code violations. In an interview Wednesday, Chief Kruger initially said “there were no open fire code violations that we were aware of.” But when asked about the sprinkler system and a blocked fire escape, confirmed there were violations — including a “board or plank” blocking the hatch to the fire escape.
“Whatever ability we have to enforce something, we do,” Kruger said.
Residents were seen jumping out of second-story windows to escape the blaze last week as firefighters arrived on scene. Some who lost loved ones said they felt like the deaths could have been avoided.
“Where was the city in this? Where were their inspectors staying on top of this?” said Phillip MacDonald, who described one of the men who died in the fire as a “good friend.” His brother also lived in the rooming house but was not home at the time of the fire. “Maybe this becomes the beginning of a lot of change,” he added.
Owners of the rooming house, which was located on 1301-1307 Acushnet Ave., had recently restructured to form a new corporation. The property was technically sold for $1 in December of 2022 and transferred to “1305 Acushnet Ave LLC,” a Rhode Island based corporation, according to deeds in the Bristol County Registry.
That corporation was formed in May of 2022, months before the property was sold. At least one of the new owners, Kenneth Hoffman, was also part of the group that had previously owned the building. In emails he exchanged with the city fire department, months before the official sale, Hoffman also included the “new” owners of the property who technically didn’t purchase the building until the $1 transfer in December, months later.
“I can’t talk to you guys, but appreciate the call,” said Hoffman, when reached by phone Wednesday.
The fire department closed its investigation last week after determining the fire likely started with a microwave, or the microwave’s wall outlet, on the building’s second floor.
The mayor and the fire chief stressed that, despite the barriers, the city would continue efforts to enforce fire code regulations in New Bedford’s rooming houses.
“We try to give landlords the opportunity to get it done,” Mayor Mitchell said. “If they don’t want to take on the expense, they should reconsider whether this business is for them.”
Editor’s note: This story was amended on April 19, 2023, to correct context and add proper chronology of the fire code violations. A previous version of the story did not clarify that some of the fire code violations cited in a July 25, 2022, email had been corrected before the fire.
Email staff reporter Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“For some, these [rooming houses] are the next best thing to being out on the street or being in a shelter.” Well, they’re out in the street or in a shelter now, because of everyone’s lack of action! Inspectors missing violations!
I don’t believe it! Lol! Now watch the City get sued for their lack of enforcing the laws! It will be interesting to see how the insurance company handles this.
Like the Lead Paint laws, the regulation for sprinklers in rooming houses can be prohibitive. There should be a low interest rate loan to assist landlords with complying. Officials regulate without funds to implement. The mayor’s comment about if you cannot afford it maybe you are in the wrong business. Is out of line with reality, when landlords are fighting to comply with the many rules that someone who does not walk in the shoes of the owner promulgates.
I like your idea about a low interest loan program to assist landlords with getting buildings up to code. The article mentioned it would have been $85.5K to put the new System in. I know a dollar is not what a dollar used to be but that seems like a decent amount of an expenditure, even to a Surf like myself. Hopefully some positive change results from this tragedy. God Bless the victims but this could have been WAY worse. The City needs to step up.
So, you’re willing to roll the dice with someone else’s life and safety? 2 people are dead because of the risk a landlord was willing to take. Does that sound right to you? Are their lives not worth the investment because they are poor and pay low rents?
First I want to express sympathy w those who lost ones and secondly to firefighters,who risked their lives to save others .That said this was a disaster waiting to open.Fires in older historic bldgs housing low income folks happen all the time and they take lives from the Portland Oregon fire of,1975 that killed 12 to the 2013 Portland Maine one that killed 5.These buildings,provide cheap rent a roof over the heads of those who can’t afford more.The city had a law in effect regarding sprinklers the owners didn’t comply becuz of cost and the licensing board winked at the violation.A solution here and elsewhere would be for the state to subsidize sprinkler installation but ultimately older buildings w wooden infrastructure are,at risk to 🔥 all you can do is minimize risk
Municipal and County jurisdictions must take action to enforce building and fire code regulations, even when adopted for existing buildings such as in this case, especially when the code compliance deadline has expired or has been ignored by the property owner. If the property owner has failed to correct violations, or present documentation verifying that steps have been taken to start the compliance process, the public code official(s) must act to mitigate conditions posing an imminent fire and life safety risk to the occupants residing in these buildings. This includes periodic re-inspections, issuance of fines or citations, and if necessary, ordering the building evacuated, provided that local or State codes and/or ordinances allow for, or support this enforcement action. The property owner(s) must take the responsibility for temporarily relocating the occupants until the building can be brought into code compliance. Jurisdictions should assist in this process by providing relocation resources. This situation will continue to repeat itself if we don’t change course in the way we conduct our code enforcement efforts, and if we allow occupants to continue residing in buildings posing an imminent threat to life safety. Code officials should not risk their own integrity and career in order to accommodate these situations. Our responsibility is to ensure fire and life safety, not to allow dangerous conditions to exist based on practical or financial hardship.
Alternative compliance options can always be found that can serve to meet the intent of the code, or at least minimize the fire risk level, while still providing some flexibility to the property owner and allowing for occupants to be safeguarded.
Sadly as Fire Inspector for last 30 years I know how hard is to enforced the Fire Code. Once required a sprinkler system we hit with a several politics obstruction or legal issues that brakes our efforts.
As a former fire survivor ! I have great sympathy for these survivors I was to in a fire with blocked doors and no sprinklers had there been there would have been more survivors . I still live in fear everyday my heart goes out to all of them
Since the landlord was notified multiple times and paid no attention to having a sprinkler system put in can he be charged with something death resulting to that point where he’s going to be liable for the two people that lost their lives because the the police department’s now are doing this with overdoses if they find out who the seller is and they can prove that that person stole somebody the drugs that Pusher is going to get charged with murder it happened with my cousin. I don’t know if this sounds too Stern or whether it’s just right but I would think that if this gentleman was held to that standard maybe other people within the city of New Bedford that are not compliant with the building codes in their room and houses would say to themselves hey I better get my acting gear and get this done or else if there’s a fire in my place and somebody dies I’m going to get near with the same thing death resulting.
Now could this landlord in other landlords be brought up on charges of not complying with fire codes death resulting and be charged with like two counts of murder. Or two counts of homicide or whatever and make it a really strict thing so these people will stop wasting time and getting it done.
Granted, retrofits are more expensive. But since their water supply serves a multitude of rooms, it should be sufficient. The challenge is designing a layout in the most efficient manner. How about installing an NFPA 13 system in the hallways and NFPA 13D systems in the apartments? It allows alternative layouts that can reduce installation costs by 50 percent.
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