New Bedford is both losing lives and losing its historic Victorian-era streetscapes because it can’t figure out a way to enforce its sprinkler systems laws.

Ten years after the city adopted the state statute requiring that all rooming houses be sprinklered, almost two thirds of the lodging buildings in New Bedford still don’t have water pipes.

That’s what New Bedford Light writer Will Sennott reported last week in his story exploring the reasons that the 31-unit Royal Crown rooming house, just a stone’s throw from St. Anthony’s Church, was destroyed by a raging fire in just a matter of hours. Two of the lodgers at the building with the historic copper turrets and red-brick facade succumbed on March 28. 


But it’s not just the rooming houses that are a danger to the people who live in them in these turn-of-the-20th century factory neighborhoods, left over from the city’s heyday as a mill town.

It’s also the big, multi-family apartment-house buildings in these tenement neighborhoods that can be death traps because of their lack of sprinklers. That’s what happened at 1279 Acushnet Ave., just two doors down from the Royal Crown, almost two years to the month of the rooming house fire.

We’re not talking about family-owned triple deckers here, we’re talking about the six-, seven- and eight-unit residential structures where the owners make a very fine living, thanks to the numbers of units and often long-ago low-purchase prices. Many of these buildings are also not sprinklered and are not required to be by any city or state law. 

Two years ago, on April 19, 2021, two men died at the six-unit 1279 Acushnet Ave. four-story structure, while no one died at the adjacent five-unit four-story at 1283 Acushnet Ave. Both buildings were engulfed by the same fire, which started from a discarded smoking implement in the narrow alley between them. The building at 1279 was not sprinklered, and the one at 1283 was.

The gap on the street where a building at 1283 Acushnet Avenue was demolished after an April 2021 fire. The first building shows fire damaged siding at 1279 Acushnet Ave. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

According to city officials, the property at 1283 had the water system installed while the one at 1279 did not because the former evidently underwent a renovation that involved more than 50% of the building. That’s the state law’s triggering the installation of a sprinkler system at buildings larger than 35,000 cubic feet and it’s a weak one. The city follows state building codes and has not moved to adopt anything stronger.

Both the 2023 and 2021 fires may have involved other fire code violations. There has been reporting about a blocked fire escape/porch at the Royal Crown and about a staircase being used for storage at 1279 Acushnet Ave. And smoke detector inspections in any of these multiple-unit, low-income rentals are only as good as the day on which they are inspected.

District Attorney Tom Quinn’s office says it is investigating the circumstances of the Royal Crown fire.

State law allows the city to fine the owners of multi-unit buildings up to $1,000 for fire code violations, and the city has in some cases tried to enforce the code. But city officials say it has sometimes lost its enforcement actions when the property owners brought them to the state fire code appeals board or to court. It’s also expensive to fight a well-heeled landlord when the city has limited resources in its city solicitor’s office, they acknowledge.

In the case of the sprinkler systems, the law requiring all rooming houses to have them was adopted by New Bedford in 2013, and the facilities had five years to comply. But most of them in New Bedford did not comply. At Royal Crown, the owners had recently applied for a building permit for a sprinkler system set to cost almost $86,000, but they were acting 10 years after the law went into effect and five years after the time limit for complying had expired.

Again, city officials say that aggressively chasing these landlords can force low-income tenants onto the street, or motivate owners to abandon their properties.

But these landlords make a good living, with the owners of the Royal Crown charging around $170 a week with up to 31 units to rent. 

It’s worth noting that the Royal Crown’s ownership is in a limited liability trust, a type of ownership common in these multifamily dwellings that legally helps protect the owners from personal liability and liability for other properties that they may own through other trusts.

So the city has a hard time enforcing its own sprinkler laws and its own fire codes.

Does that mean the city should give up? Should we just accept that New Bedford runs unsafe rooming houses and apartment buildings and that some of the folks who live in them are simply doomed to occasionally die? And that the historic buildings are destined to burn down every few years? 

Clearly the administration of Mayor Jon Mitchell has to come up with a better approach. 

Here are the facts, despite whatever the mayor and fire chief may say about the total number of fires being down across the city as a whole.

Between April 2021 and March 2023, four men have died in terrible Acushnet Avenue fires within a block of each other. The city is lucky there was not a third tragedy last November when a three-alarm fire struck a 25-unit residential building three blocks south at 1168 Acushnet Ave. That structure, home to the Maya K’iche Center, is also a historic landmark, with a towering turret at the corner of Beetle Street.

This historic neighborhood around St. Anthony’s Church, so emblematic of the city’s industrial era, now has two vacant lots within a block of each other and possibly a third vacant space coming if the building where the former Chocolate Com Pimenta bakery was located cannot be saved.

The owners of that structure are reportedly in negotiations with their insurance company over a settlement over that fire. Whether they obtain enough money to rebuild remains to be seen.

Anyone who knows the challenge of redeveloping vacant lots in the central urban neighborhoods of cities like New Bedford knows that it will be a struggle to get anything built at the now-empty lots where Royal Crown and 1283 Acushnet Ave. once stood. Certainly, nothing like these historic, mixed-commercial residential buildings has been built in that part of the city in a long, long time. It’s just too difficult for developers to make back their money in New Bedford rentals.

This is a tragedy for New Bedford all around.

The Crown Royal rooming house was perhaps the most distinctive early 20th-century structure outside of St. Anthony’s on The Avenue. The men who died there no doubt had people who loved and cared about them.  

The burned-out Crown Royal rooming house as it was located on Acushnet Avenue near St. Anthony’s Church. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Manuel Moreira was 59 years old and Wayne Bourdon was 63, when they passed away too early two weeks ago. 

The two Guatemlan immigrants who died in 2021 at 1279 Acushnet Ave. in 2021 were Tomas Gomez-Delcaruz, 49, and Juan Macario-Mejia, 40. The Mayan community collected money to try to bring their remains back home to Central America.

The Royal Crown rooming house was owned by something called 1305 Acushnet Avenue LLC, and Kenneth Hoffman is listed as an officer. It had changed hands for the sum of $1 in the last year from Royal Crown Realty Trust, of which Hoffman was also the trustee.

The 1279 Acushnet Ave. building is owned by Chocolate Com Pimenta Corp., according to the city Assessor Records. Constantina Costa is listed as all four officers in that company — president, treasurer, secretary and director. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, the corporation was dissolved on Dec. 31, 2021, the last day of the year of the fire.  

Seven years ago, The Standard-Times reported that Acushnet Avenue in the North End celebrated when Chocolate Com Pimenta renovated the bakery. There were tears from the owners, Tina and Jose Costa, and congratulations from the city. Even the pastor from St. Anthony’s came and blessed the grand re-opening.

Now, in 2023, the 1279 building continues to stand as a shell of itself. The adjacent 1283 building was demolished a few days after the fire as the structure was deemed unstable; the same with the Royal Crown structure that went down last week for the same reason.

Maria Giesta, the Ward 2 councilor who represents this area, did not return my phone call about the fires in her ward. Giesta has not been returning my calls lately. She may be upset because I’ve criticized some of her recent actions, particularly as they involved the council-approved pay raises for city managers and against opening up the admissions policy for GNB Voc-Tech high school.

That’s too bad. I was hoping Giesta might have some insight into what is a significant problem for her ward.

Mayor Mitchell told me the time has come to do something about the lack of sprinklers in the rooming houses, and the fire code violations that tend to quickly reappear in certain buildings even after they have been addressed by the city.

“We need to be reducing the number of fires in the city. Period. Full stop,” he said.

Although the city has made progress and the number of fires overall is down, there remains a problem with some situations, he said.

The city is willing to help the rooming houses that are making a good faith effort, he said, and is ready to aggressively pursue the law for those who are ignoring the requirement.

“We’re going to start to run the meter, take them to court and try to bring that to a head,” he said.

There may also be some buildings, where the nature of the structure and the tenants, may require a more intensive inspection process, the mayor said. One possibility is to employ retired firefighters who have knowledge of inspection compliance to perform the work, he said.

“I think we could be a little more nuanced in what we could do,” he said.

The mayor is saying the right things. But this has been a long-standing problem, particularly with the sluggish effort on getting more buildings sprinklered.

The proof will be in what the administration can do about the problem. And as in all things New Bedford, what the City Council is willing to cooperate on.

Email columnist Jack Spillane at

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1 Comment

  1. Again and yet again on Acushnet ave multi housing 🔥 sounds like tale of 2 houses one housing my favorite cafe chocolate pimento whose owners spent $on sprinklers to protect their investment and one next door that did not.The city has an ordinance passed in 2013 but rarely enforced giving owners a free pass to rake in mega profits while their unprotected tenants burn.How much ?well at $170 x31 units at Royal crown hotel that’s $250k per yr.Pretty sweet profit and I’ll bet the owners don’t live wo sprinklers.So the law is weak and city doesn’t have the bucks which is why STATE must make it mandatory for older historic housing in old mill cities to comply w the law and offer as incentive $ subsidy .State offers subsidies for heat pumps and switch to green energy why not this which is a matter of life and death . YES we can lite candles for those lost and wring our hands but if the city and state do nothing ITS ALL EMPTY WORDS AND BLAH BLAH

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