Almost a year ago, two fires at Houston residential buildings led to three deaths and the displacement of the surviving residents. Houston officials will announce Tuesday a plan for tighter building ordinances they hope will prevent another disaster.
According to the Houston Chronicle, officials from the Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs (ARA) will present changes to ordinances around Houston’s multi-resident living spaces at 10 a.m. during their public safety committee meeting.
When two residents died trying to escape the fire at Briscoe’s Place in south Houston last February, it raised questions about the degree of oversight the city was taking with the unregulated boarding house, and other facilities like it.
According to KHOU reporter Lauren Talarico, the boarding house mainly hosted the elderly and disabled, yet had no windows and only two exits. The exit doors were also reportedly locked at the time the fire took place, and city officials say the building’s exits violated building codes.
Boarding houses like Briscoe’s — also called rooming houses — often serve as housing for low-income people. Rooms are rented by the night or weekly, and common areas like the kitchen are shared with other residents.
After combing through permitting and fire records, the Chronicle found the city conducts little oversight of the boarding houses. Lara Cottingham, spokeswoman for ARA, told the Chronicle:
We think we’ve talked with all the stake holders and communities, but want to make sure if any changes or suggestions come at the the meeting tomorrow we have the ability to incorporate them. Barring any major changes, we hope to bring the proposed ordinances to council in March.
A key part of stepping up safety at boarding houses and similar facilities will be changes in permitting.
The ARA plans to propose that “lodging facilities,” which includes boarding houses, be required to receive annual permits and “life safety” inspections. Also, “boarding homes” — places where groups of elderly and/or disabled people live and get regular care — will be required to get a yearly permit as well.
Cottingham said this would give the city some authority to enforce regulations. Before, places like this were only required to register with the city, without yearly permitting.
Today’s proposed changes are the latest in a long and ugly battle to improve the safety of Houston’s low-income housing.
In their report “Out of Order: Houston’s Dangerous Apartment Epidemic,” the University of Texas School of Law – Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic backs up claims of lax city oversight:
Houston is a city of renters, with more than 420,000 rental housing units and the third highest number of occupied apartments in the country. Many of these apartments, however, are unsafe and deteriorating. Following decades of weak building standards and feeble code enforcement, Houston is now in the midst of a dangerous apartment epidemic.