Sunday, February 23, 2014
Valentine's Day Fire Forces Tough Questions
When the fire at 4425 Aldrich Ave N--owned by the infamous Mahmood Khan--broke out several months ago, a common refrain was relief that everyone was able to escape in time. Many wondered what would have happened if circumstances were just a bit different. If the fire had started somewhere else, or if it spread just a bit faster, would we be mourning deaths instead of sighing in collective relief? Tragically, we don't have to wonder "what if?" because the unthinkable has happened. Five children are dead, and a family is torn apart.
When news spread about the Valentine's Day fire at 2818 Colfax, plenty of northsiders' first words were, "I bet it happened at a property owned by _____." That blank had one of about five well-known landlords in it, and Paul Bertelson was among them. Initial investigative results are already pointing away from foul play and indicating the fire was an accident of some sort, making the next question obvious: How could we have kept this from happening, and how will we keep something like it from happening again? We shouldn't need a senseless tragedy like this to cause us to ask some tough questions around housing in Minneapolis. But it's happened and we better take a hard look at how and why.
How did this house pass inspections?
According to media reports, the house passed an inspection just a few months prior, indicating one of three possibilities. Either the inspection did not catch something it should have, or the inspection process is faulty and is not designed in a way that can sufficiently prevent such fires, or conditions in the property changed since the last inspection. My vote is for a Venn diagram where all three possibilities overlap to some degree, as even a cursory view of media reports and the exterior of the property raises the question,
What was the third floor being used as?
The attic space was clearly being used as furnished space for the family. And given that there were seven kids living there, I'd bet that it was being used as bedroom space. And knowing both the kind of older structure involved and the property's owner, I will further speculate that the attic insulation was not up to par for use as a bedroom. Even if rental licensing rules prohibit using attic space in this way, and even if Bertelson told the father not to do so, the logistics make such use a near-certainty. Attic spaces in older homes rarely have two exits, so anyone trapped on the third floor during a fire is in serious trouble. So the next question is,
Could more stringent rules and inspections prevent such tragedies?
The answer isn't as obvious as one would like it to be. If the city were more strident in its rules, or if the owner would have strictly enforced a limited use of the attic space, or if such attic conversions were completely illegal in the first place, perhaps the fire at this particular property would have been averted. But tighten the grip too much, and doing so can just drive slumlords and tenants "underground." More and more landlords are looking at the contract for deed route as a way to skirt rental licensing requirements. Although contracts for deed are at times misused as a de facto rental situation, enforcing rental rules on a property that is legally owned is tenuous at best. People need a place to live, and that need will be met one way or another, by good landlords who follow the rules or by slumlords unwilling or unable to do so. Which leads to the biggest question that we should be asking ourselves.
How do we provide safe and affordable housing for everyone who needs it?
And safety in this context extends to the broader community. People with criminal records still need a roof over their heads, but people in good shelter while actively participating in criminal activities certainly don't make housing safe for their neighbors. One way or another, though, people are going to find a roof over their heads. How do we accommodate that need in ways that keep people safe?
There is a lot more information out there regarding the father of the victims, and little of it is pretty. But to focus too much on those things is to divert attention away from the larger picture. The discussion then narrows to one family, or worse yet, whether revealing certain things is in good taste. Doing so takes an unspeakable horror and distills it to the smallest possible facet of a broader issue. At the end of the day, there is one question that matters.
How do we keep this from ever happening again?