By Arthur H. Gunther III
If you are in business, then you want your employees to be well-trained, your equipment to be in top shape, your materials the best you can buy. You want all that if you also seek to offer reputation along with product. Should it be any different when you are a landlord? Actually, responsibility for the “product” -- your tenants -- is even greater. They must be well served as fellow humans, protected from rent gouging and kept safe from building neglect that compromises safety and health.
Not enough landlords pass this reputation test. Yes, the business of owning rental property is difficult to begin with -- tenants come and go, creating income instability, some don’t pay their rent, some abuse property. Taxes and utility costs continually rise, and the property has to be maintained. But it’s a business the landlord chooses to run, and, as such, there is an obligation that it be conducted properly. Since people are involved, that means government has to be as well. And it’s an instance where the least government the better can’t be the rule. Officialdom must be proactive.
For example, consider a situation last week in Spring valley, N.Y., where some tenants in 10 apartments could have perished in a large fire. The blaze, perhaps caused by an unattended candle and maybe an electrical problem, and made worse by a delayed call to 911 and then low hydrant pressure and blocked firetruck entry, was a perfect storm in which government is partly to blame.
Some 55 people were left homeless, and volunteer firefighters from 11 departments and other responders battled heat exhaustion in the continuing high temperatures in the Northeast. Thankfully, there were no deaths, no major injuries. But the situation could have become a disaster. The tenants, the landlord and government lucked out. Now the task now is not only to rebuild but to help save lives in the next fire; indeed, to reduce the chance of one occurring.
Spring Valley is major rental territory, and the Village Board must take steps to better protect tenants. After the recent fire, investigators found some inoperative smoke detectors, and one illegal room conversion, which can prove a deathly maze for firefighters lost in heavy, choking smoke. To the good, the village says that all 66 apartments in two buildings at the fire site have smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors, and that the property owners are working with the village to comply with all codes. That’s the hoped-for future. In the past -- just last week -- responders were hampered by low or no pressure in hydrants, forcing them to use tanker and pumper trucks. But the back gate of the apartment complex was blocked by residents’ cars and had to be cut through so tankers could get in.
According to media reports, the government’s response so far is a planned resolution requiring supervisors of multiple-family dwellings throughout the village to check rental units quarterly to ensure smoke alarms are installed and operating. Not enough, people.
Don’t depend on landlords, who are usually absentee and who hire local “superintendents” already overworked, poorly trained and underpaid. Instead, the village’s annual fire inspections must become not only quarterly but official, conducted by paid, free-lance volunteer firefighters, ex-military and others who could supplement retirement income. The municipality would not incur any costs, with inspections set at $50 per building of say 50 units. That’s $200 a year, per building, not much to keep your tenants safe.
In addition, Spring Valley should:
• Immediately require hard-wired (with battery back-up) smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in all proper locations. Hard wiring will override situations where people remove batteries if the detectors are annoying.
• Insist that police patrol fire lanes every single shift and immediately call landlords if areas are blocked. Cars should be towed. Volunteer firefighters and paid responders, including the police, cannot have their lives jeopardized by blocked fire lanes.
• Fines should be stiff, with jail time in some cases, for landlords who allow illegal room conversions or who are repeat offenders on fire and building code violations.
• Utilities should be held legally liable if they do not maintain sufficient water pressure in hydrant mains. Spring Valley can help here by using their muscle and also advising the Planning Board and Zoning Board not to approve any more building units until water pressure improves. Spring Valley is undergoing massive urban renewal, adding hundreds of residential units. Has that compromised water pressure in very old mains?
• Tenants should be offered more instruction on fire safety, including avoiding electrical overload, use of candles, etc.
Landlords, tenants and government all have a responsibility to protect and save lives in municipal multi-unit dwellings. But it is government that must be the leader, in Spring Valley and all over the place.