How to Prevent Death by Fire in Unsafe, Illegal Housing

Neal Richman teaches in the Department of Urban Planning in the School of Public Policy and Social Research at UCLA. Danny Krouk consults with the Community Building Institute. Both work on the Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles telecommunications and information system

The official response to the deadly garage fire on East 105th Street in South Central was all-too predictable. Yes, routine inspections of all multifamily properties should be conducted at least once every three years. But the city has only 400 building inspectors to cover "one million properties" citywide. Budget limits, imposed by voters, make it impossible to hire the staff necessary to monitor housing safety and prevent dangerous situations like the converted garage in which five children burned to death.

But hazardous properties are not randomly distributed throughout the city. For too many residents, finding dangerous properties is easy, avoiding them is the challenge. Last August, Viola McClain, an 82-year-old community leader, was shot and killed on East 115th Street after a 12-year-old was gang-raped in an adjacent abandoned house. That property is only 10 blocks from the fire-ravaged converted garage on 105th.

What too many city and county officials fail to realize is that, collectively, they already have much of the necessary information to identify and counteract residential deterioration. Consider:

* The county tax collector compiles a steadily accumulating bill for back taxes, many on distressed residential properties, totaling approximately $1.3 billion.

* The Department of Water and Power has a long list of master-metered apartment buildings with significant unpaid bills.

* The city's Department of Building and Safety keeps its own inventory of code-violation complaints.

All these separate lists of problem properties are integrally connected. For example, a study examining the pattern of disinvestment in the Vernon-Central neighborhood of South Los Angeles found that the longer a residential property was tax delinquent, the more likely it was to have building-code violations.

Even with limited resources for code enforcement but armed with these lists, the City Council could, for example, require that all properties entering their third year of tax delinquency be inspected by the Building and Safety Department, with the cost of the inspection filed against the property.

But fines and penalty fees are not enough. In many instances, when one calculates the total value of tax liens and penalty fees associated with failure to comply with governmental assessments and regulations, local government becomes, in essence, a joint-venture partner in slum housing, holding a substantial equity interest.

This has helped local government to appreciate the necessity of more pro-active approaches to potentially dangerous housing. For example, the recently established City of L.A. Problem Property Resolution Team is working interdepartmentally to mitigate the impact of distressed properties on their surrounding neighborhoods. Also, the Housing Department and DWP are jointly devising a plan to prevent additional residential abandonment as utilities are terminated due to nonpayment.

But while such cooperation is an important first step, experience from around the nation indicates that tragedies associated with disinvestment and substandard housing can only be averted when neighborhood residents are engaged in problem solving.

For example, Chicago's Neighborhood Housing Intervention Program, begun in six communities, combines public information, effective community organizing and legal assistance to develop a comprehensive housing-preservation strategy. To make public information accessible, the Center for Neighborhood Technology collates an array of government data related to property conditions and investment, and publishes them on an Internet site. This Neighborhood Early Warning System (NEWS) is used to identify problem properties, after which site visits are made and tenants contacted by telephone or flyers. In some instances, a resident can buy the delinquent tax lien for $1 and use the cost savings to pay for needed repairs.

Los Angeles needs a similar approach to combat residential deterioration. Fortunately, some efforts are underway. For one, the newly established Community Building Institute is constructing Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (NKLA), modeled after Chicago's NEWS, which will make available property-based information on residential environments, long hidden in local government records, to all Internet users. This year, NKLA is one of 60 demonstration projects chosen by the federal government to expand poor people's access to the information superhighway.

Almost three years ago, many parts of Los Angeles were transformed into "ghost towns" by the Northridge earthquake. With federal support and local leadership, most of these neighborhoods are on the road to recovery. The deaths of Viola McClain and the five children on 105th are disasters of another kind--man-made and preventable. Toward that end, strategies combining identification of unlawful housing, organization of neighborhoods to appropriately respond and revitalization of disinvested areas should be devised and implemented in the 10-block area around the two tragedies. Then, such strategies could be extended to Los Angeles as a whole in order to transform abandoned, deteriorated and unfit living conditions into real homes.*

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