By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia lawmakers are looking at forcing landlords in the city, for the first time, to conduct regular inspections of fire escapes. A city council committee hearing Friday came in the wake of the January collapse of a Center City fire escape that killed one person and injured two others (read related story).
The committee heard from Attorney Dominic Guerrini, representing the family of 22-year-old Albert Suh, who fell to his death from the 4th floor landing of the building near 22nd at Locust Streets in Rittenhouse Square on January 12th. His family and one of the two injured are now suing the building’s owner. Guerrini urged city council to require professional inspections of fire escapes at least every five years.
“Public safety requires that these inspections be done,” said Guerrini. “And the costs simply are not a deterrent. They are minimal, and when spread out over the course of five years, any landlord in this city can afford them. And they should be forced to do what is necessary to get these inspections, and prevent an event like this from happening in the future.”
Currently owners of rental properties in Philadelphia must apply for an annual rental license, but they are not required to submit proof that the fire escape has been inspected. Also testifying at the hearing was Deputy Fire Commissioner Henry Costo, who said only trained professionals can really judge the safety of a fire escape.
“If the owner is inclined to put a coat of fresh paint on a fire escape,” Costo said, “to the untrained eye, it could look fine.”
Darryl Zaslow, attorney for the local landlords group “HAPCO,” indicated support for the idea of mandatory inspections so long as the price tag did not exceed the estimated cost of $200-$500 per inspection. But Phillip Lord with the local tenants group “TURN” said the idea falls short, because landlords who are unlicensed will also not bother with inspections.
“We don’t believe it’s going to address the vast majority of where this problem might occur,” Lord said. “Because there are many landlords, as you know, who are not licensed and are probably more likely to be among those who have a (fire escape) problem in this regard.”
Christine Gertz, with the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, another landlords group, agreed with Lord that irresponsible landlords are the root problem.
“They make it harder on the rest of us,” Gertz said, “who are playing by the rules and following the highest standards of property maintenance.”
And mandatory inspections are only part of the solution, according to witnesses. Costo said the city must also get the word out that fire escapes are not party balconies.
“We need to educate the public on the understanding that that is not what it’s designed to do,” Costo said. “It’s designed for an escape from imminent danger in a fire, not for them to hang out and have parties. But unfortunately we have not taken advantage of opportunities to educate the public in that regard.”
And Lord said coming down hard on unlicensed landlords will help get the word out.
“You don’t have to check every building,” he said. “You just to have to make sure that when someone is not licensed, or doesn’t have a decent fire escape, that it’s more than just a slap on the wrist.”