Deadly Fire: City-Owned Apartments Did Not Pass Rental Inspections

February 9, 2007 by  
Filed under News

Fire kills three children in Ypsilanti public housing (Photo Courtesy Detroit News)

Public Housing property is one of many Ypsilanti Housing Commission complexes that has no valid Certificate of Occupancy.

(February 9, 2007) Ypsilanti city building officials told YpsiNews.com just two weeks before the deadly fire, that Paradise Manor Public Housing on West Michigan Avenue does not have a current Certificate of Occupancy.

Under the City of Ypsilanti ordinances, all rental property in the city, including property owned by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission, must have their property inspected by the city Building Department every two years.

The city specifically calls it a Certificate of Compliance under the rental housing inspection program that is administered by the city. Property owners and managers must have and maintain a valid certificate of compliance in order to rent the property to any residents.

On Thursday around 4pm, a deadly fire raced through Paradise Manor. Killed in the fire were three children, ages 1 to 7. The mother had stepped out to a neighbors to get an ingredient for a meal she was cooking. When she returned, smoke was so thick, residents reported that you could not even see the door to the apartment.

Witnesses report the fire tore through the building within minutes. The first call came from an Ypsilanti police officer who was driving by and noticed flames coming from a window. Shortly after that, calls began coming into 911. When firefighters arrived on scene within minutes of the first call, they found flames shooting through the roof. Two firefighters were injured fighting the fire. One twisted an ankle after falling into a hole, the other suffered minor burns and blistering of the neck.

The fire began in the kitchen and then raced up the stairs to the second floor where the children were located. The only exit out of the apartment was down the stairs and through the kitchen. Firefighters said it would have been impossible for the children to make it down the stairs though the smoke and fire.

Modern building codes do not allow for the only exit to be through a kitchen because of the prevalence of kitchen fires. Paradise Manor is a public housing project built in the 1970’s, long before most building codes were adopted by the City.

Paradise Manor is owned and managed by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission, which is part of the City of Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti City Council appoints members to the Housing Commission board and oversees their budget. The former chair and long time board member of the Housing Commission, Paul Schreiber, is now mayor of Ypsilanti.

The City’s Rental ordinance states:

    “No person, either the owner or owner’s agent shall rent, lease, or allow occupancy of a dwelling unit or sleeping unit after September 1, 1986, in a multiple dwelling, to any person unless that owner or owner’s agent has first obtained a valid certificate of compliance from the city building inspection department covering that unit.”

The Housing Commission currently owns and operates 199 units in the City of Ypsilanti as well as administers the HUD Section 8 voucher program in the city.

According to City Hall, besides Paradise Manor, Housing Commission properties at 610-614 First Avenue and 881-885 Madison also do not have current Certificates of Compliance. Most of those properties have tenants.

Charles Boulard, Director of the Ypsilanti Building Department, said that most of the problems at Paradise Manor involved site work including steps and sidewalks which haven’t been repaired. Boulard said the apartments had not been inspected and the city was waiting for the Housing Commission to complete additional work before reinspecting the property.

Another unit at Paradise Manor was devastated by fire less than two years ago. The north unit fire destroyed one apartment and caused significant damage to two other units. Those units have been rebuilt but still do not have Certificates of Compliance. It is unknown if residents are currently living in the north unit of Paradise Manor.

In a closed session last January 2006, The Ypsilanti Housing Commission (YHC) voted to hire an outside attorney to deal with the ongoing dispute over housing inspections and code violations with the City. When it was pointed out that the closed session was in violation of the Open Meetings Act, YHC officials said the issue was about on-going litigation. However, no suit had been filed by the city and the closed meeting was to discuss the need to hire an attorney, not hear advice from legal counsel. YHC officials and board members have refused to talk about the code violations or inspections since the January 2006 meeting.

From the Housing Commission minutes:

Adjourned to Closed Session at 7:56 pm. per Open Meetings Act Sec 15.268(a) to discuss City Building Department Violation/Registration

When the Housing Commission emerged from closed session they passed a new resolution which stated:

Meeting reconvened at 9:21 p.m.
New Business
RESOLUTION 2006-01
RFQ for Legal Council (sic) regarding the Housing Code Violation Citation
Offered by Commissioner Schreiber
Supported by Commission Jones
Questions asked and answered
YEAS 5 NAYS 0 Passed Unanimously

As of the posting of this story, we have made several calls to Ypsilanti Housing Commission Director Walter Norris. Our calls have not been returned. We will update this story as we continue to learn more about this devastating fire and deaths.

Editors Note: The owner of YpsiNews.com, Steve Pierce, was one of three candidates that ran for Mayor of Ypsilanti in the 2006 Democratic primary.

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