Fire Horror Shows ‘Life-and-Death' Needs in Philly's Public Housing

The property, which was split into two separate apartments, caught fire Wednesday morning, killing eight children and four adults. Two others, a child and an adult, were left in critical condition

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Though there were 26 people residing there, a three-story Philadelphia rowhome that caught fire in a deadly blaze that killed 12 people did not have a fire escape. It did not have to, according to the city’s fire code.

Philadelphia does not require fire escapes in one and two-family city rowhouses, Licenses and Inspections spokeswoman Karen Guss said. In addition, while newer buildings require sprinkler systems, the house that caught fire – which is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority – was exempt because it was an older construction, Guss said.

The property, which was split into two separate apartments, caught fire Wednesday morning, killing eight children and four adults. Two others, a child and an adult, were left in critical condition.

“They'd be alive today if they had sprinklers in that building,” said Glenn Corbett, a fire expert. He was the chairman of a blue-ribbon panel that suggested dozens of reforms – including fire safety and prevention measures – following the 2013 collapse of a Philadelphia Salvation Army building that left six people dead and 13 others injured.

There were six battery-operated smoke detectors installed in the home that went up in flames Wednesday, but none were operational at the time of the blaze, firefighters said. Kelvin Jeremiah, the PHA’s president and chief executive officer, said in a written statement Wednesday that all smoke detectors were working properly when the property was last inspected in May of last year.

The family moved in in 2011 and had been relocated there because their old home was too small, Jeremiah said. Over time, three daughters had children of their own and the family grew, with three generations living under the same roof.

The leasing agreement was for 20 people in the two units. One of the units was supposed to house 14 people, while the second was supposed to house six, Jeremiah said.

But while some have questioned why there were so many people in one home, Jeremiah noted the dire need for affordable housing in the nation’s poorest big city.

“This was in fact an intact family who chose to live together. This is what we do. We don’t kick out our family members, our loved ones who may not have other suitable housing options,” Jeremiah said.

He called the idea of kicking people out because their family got bigger an “absurdity.”

The home that burned was one of some 4,000 properties in the PHA’s “scattered site” portfolio, Jeremiah said. Those homes offer low-income families the opportunity to live in what are “gentrifying neighborhoods that are quickly losing affordability,” he noted.

The home is in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood, which is close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Ben Franklin Parkway, and has been gentrifying for decades.

Building new public housing or repairing what PHA already owns is an enormous task, but one that is a life-or-death need for residents, Jeremiah said.

His agency currently has around $1.5 billion in deferred capital and maintenance needs, Jeremiah said, adding that public housing infrastructure around the country continues to deteriorate due to a lack of funding.

“So, while the conditions are deteriorating nationally, our families wait and wait and wait. They can wait no more. It has become a question of life and death for too many families, and this unfortunate, unimageable tragedy highlights that in some real ways,” Jeremiah said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing in which the occupant does not spend more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs, including utilities. As of 2019, more than 37 million renters and homeowners spent more than 30% of their income on housing, according to HUD.

Jeremiah called on lawmakers to pass President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion social spending Build Back Better Act, which allocates $170 billion for affordable housing. The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate, where all Republicans and two conservative Democrats – Joe Manchin of Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – oppose it.

Meanwhile, local and federal investigators continue to probe what sparked the blaze.

Investigative sources told NBC10 a child was playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree prior to the fire. The child escaped by running out of the house and told investigators the tree had gone up in flames, the sources said.

Officials Thursday would not comment on specifics regarding the investigation, though they did hint at a wide-ranging probe.

“What I can tell you is this is a resource-intensive investigation. It’s an exceptional time – manpower staffing, equipment, commitment – to get to the origin and cause of this tragedy,” Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Chief Dennis Merrigan said.

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