By Brendan Clogston
In the wake of last Friday’s dangerous Morris Street fire, the City of Everett is stepping up safety inspections citywide, preparing for a street-by-street review of fire safety and warning systems in every home in the city.
Members of the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) are eager to begin a process which they believe could save lives in the city, especially given that such an inspection likely saved some in last week’s fire.
According to the city’s Assistant City Solicitor and head of ISD’s Problem Properties Team Keith Slattery, when the city was called in to inspect 15 Morris St. this March, there were no smoke detectors operational in a two-family building housing 19 people. An immediate order was placed to install fire detection equipment in the building, and ISD ordered some beds moved that were blocking egresses in the home.
Four months later and a week after a follow-up inspection to ensure that the smoke detectors were still operational, Slattery watched the TV with horror as the Morris Street property blazed, but with a measure of relief on hearing the smoke detectors blaring. “In some ways, it was a relief to hear the alarms chirping in the background,” said Slattery.
“It probably saved some lives,” the Mayor’s Communications Officer, Tom Philbin, replied.
The city isn’t planning on taking any chances in the future. Street-by-street inspections are being prepared to make sure all properties – and especially multifamily homes – are up to code on fire safety, and they are expected to begin within the next few weeks. A letter is currently being drafted, explaining the inspections to residents, which will be sent to all homes on a given street in the weeks preceding their visit from ISD.
“We will be using all necessary measures to make sure our residents, fire and police personnel are safe,” said Mayor Carlo DeMaria in a statement. “These measures include going door to door, conducting annual inspections, taking tips on illegal units and following up on problem properties. Our goal is educate and inform property owners of their responsibilities, and to save lives.”
“Basically we want residents to know that we’re going to intensify our campaign to conduct citywide safety inspections,” said Slattery. “A safety inspection is different from an inspection that we have an investigation open on, because it’s got a more narrow criteria. It’s the egresses, it’s the smoke alert systems and the fire alert systems. Or if you have sprinklers in your dwelling, it’s to make sure that these are operational. That’s the type of inspection these are going to be. If you are illegally renting and you have overcrowding, and it’s a dangerous situation, we are going to make sure that you rectify that. … If we find that any dwelling is a dangerous dwelling, we’ll either displace the residents – so we’ll put them in a hotel or help them find suitable alternative housing until the landlord has made the building up-to-code – or we’ll put a fire detail out front. Usually after a couple of days, the more egregious safety violations are rectified and they’re able to move back, so usually it’s a pretty quick turnaround.”
Everett, like most communities in the Greater Boston area, is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and it’s difficult not to connect the dots when Slattery speaks about finding beds in back stairwells or landlords putting walls up in dining rooms to create additional rooms. The Morris Street building was a two-family apartment, but according to the Fire Marshall, 19 people were displaced by the fire.
According to Philbin, the city is looking at every avenue to increase its affordable housing stock and to protect what affordable housing it has, whether through linkage fees, affordable housing grants, inclusionary zoning, or the development of “micro-unit” studio apartments. However, from the city’s perspective, safety comes first.
“If you’re going to put the apartments in you’ve got to get the approval to put the apartments in,” said Philbin. “You can’t do basement units that have no egress, you can’t do illegal units and break up a house where people are not safe. The city takes the safety of its residents and first responders seriously and we’re going to continue to do so.”