Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Accidents Waiting To Happen

I'm sure most of you have by now heard about the fire last weekend at 825 Dekalb. Two adults and a child died in the fire and another, a little girl, just died yesterday.

According to Patch, there were 16 people living in that house. I haven't confirmed this and Patch has been wrong quite a bit in the last year, so it might not be true, but overcrowding is a huge problem in Norristown. Here's what I HAVE confirmed.

825 Dekalb is owned by a couple from North Wales. They've owned it since 2006. It's listed as a single-family residential unit, 3253 square feet of living space, 11 rooms, 6 of which are bedrooms. From what I heard from various sources,  the landlord either had a license for a single-family rental or no rental license at all. And the occupants don't seem to have all been from a single family, probably not even an extended family.

Chapter 222 of the Norristown Codes covers "Overcrowding of Dwelling Units," and Chapter 245 covers "Rental Property."  The punishment for overcrowding a rental unit is $300-$1000. Punishment for a non-licensed unit is the same, plus court costs, though every day a person is in violation is supposed to be a separate offense.

825 before the fire. A nice historic rowhouse.
Still, I know of an instance on my own street where a landlord didn't have a license to rent for 10 years before Codes took notice. He's still renting, so I'm pretty sure they didn't collect the minimum 1 million bucks that the Chapter 245 says he owed.

Imagine how wealthy a town we could be if we only collected all the rental violation fines owed. We could do away with parking meters altogether and even lower taxes.

As of the last census in 2010, Norristown has 13,420 housing units. Over 8000 of those are registered as rental units. Rental licenses are supposed to be renewed annually. The Code further states

"Upon the application of the owner for a rental license or renewal thereof, the Code Department may conduct an inspection of the property to determine and ensure that the residential rental property and each unit contained therein is not a public nuisance or substandard and meets all the zoning, health and safety requirements of the Municipality as well as general applicable law."

"MAY conduct an inspection...." But with a minimum of 8000 properties to inspect per year, plus inspections for new construction, and house and business remodeling, and things like electrical upgrades, how many inspectors would Norristown need to accomplish this? A lot of long-term renters in town will tell you they've never had an inspection of their unit, ever. ONE inspection of 825 Dekalb would have revealed the overcrowding violation and likely many others..

Add to that the fact that our Codes Department had their staff cut to save money. Really Norristown? The one department that we need to help clean up our slumlord problems and you cut their budget? Maybe we could stop giving tons of money to developers for a while while we fix our existing housing issues?

Oh and by the way, overcrowding is only fined in cases of rentals. A homeowner can pack as many people into their house as they want--as long as those people don't pay rent--with no fines, even if they're putting the neighborhood in danger. A developer who builds ultra-dense condo clusters doesn't seem to be liable if that overcrowding leads to more tragic fires.

I was at St. Patrick's Church last Saturday morning watching a bunch of cute little kids get their First Communion. One little boy didn't show up. He was in the hospital because he lived at 825 Dekalb. He lost at least one family member. He'll probably have PTSD for a long time.

We've got accidents waiting to happen all over town. Do we need a whole block to burn before we take action? We need to re-think our priorities before more people--more children--lose their lives.

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