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PHA knew for years about overcrowding in home of Fairmount fire victims but didn’t move them

Agency officials repeatedly said PHA does not split up families unless they request it. But its overcrowding policy says PHA can split families into multiple units.

PHA CEO and president Kelvin Jeremiah, at a City Hall news conference about the Fairmount that killed 12 family members in an overcrowded apartment, said the agency will assess if it "should have moved them even if they didn’t want to."
PHA CEO and president Kelvin Jeremiah, at a City Hall news conference about the Fairmount that killed 12 family members in an overcrowded apartment, said the agency will assess if it "should have moved them even if they didn’t want to."Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In 2011, the Philadelphia Housing Authority learned that Vanessa McDonald’s family, which was living in a tiny rowhouse on Chadwick Street in North Philadelphia, had grown to six people. That was more than the maximum occupancy of four the agency’s policy guidelines said their home could safely hold.

In accordance with those same occupancy policies, the agency transferred the family to a larger home, an apartment on 23rd Street in Fairmount, that same year — despite McDonald not asking to move.

Later, PHA learned that the multigenerational family had grown again. The apartment, on the upper two floors of a partitioned three-story 19th-century rowhouse, held nine people in 2016, putting the family once again over the eight-person occupancy limit for the four-bedroom unit. And last year, PHA learned the family had grown to 14 people.

But unlike in 2011, PHA did not move the family.

After last week’s tragic fire at the 23rd Street apartment, which investigators said was accidentally started by a 5-year-old child and killed 12 members of the McDonald family, the agency has offered shifting accounts about whether officials took any action to move the family after learning it was again “underhoused,” in public housing parlance, and why it did not do more.

» READ MORE: Fairmount fire that killed 12 likely began when a 5-year-old boy lit a Christmas tree, officials say

“My first question was, if you knew this family was underhoused, why didn’t PHA do anything?” said Jenna Collins, a housing attorney for the nonprofit Community Legal Services.

PHA officials say they have long struggled to cut through a backlog of wait-listed tenants seeking public housing, the result, advocates say, of a long-running affordable housing shortage in a city where about one in four people lives in poverty. PHA this week declined to say how many of its units were currently listed as “underhoused.”

The federal government has dramatically cut funding for public housing over recent decades. PHA, which now owns 14,000 affordable housing units, has lost one-third of its public housing stock since the mid-1990s while its wait lists have grown.

At first, PHA president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah said that the agency had not attempted to move the family, but spokespersons for the agency later said PHA did, in fact, place the family on a waiting list to be transferred in 2016 — albeit one the agency knew would never actually result in a transfer.

» READ MORE: Multiple families lived in the apartment where 12 died. Philly’s lack of affordable housing points to why.

“A household that is underhoused is automatically placed on a waiting list even if the family does not request a move,” spokesperson Kirk Dorn said. “Kelvin’s statement is accurate in that although they were flagged as needing a larger unit and technically on the waiting list, PHA does not own homes of the size they required. So that’s tantamount to not being on the waiting list.”

Additionally, Jeremiah has said repeatedly that PHA does not split up families unless they request it. But the agency’s overcrowding policy says that the agency can split families into multiple units to alleviate overcrowding.

PHA said its decision not to do so was not motivated by any particular guideline but by officials’ belief it was a better course of action.

“The policy you reference provides PHA with the authority to involuntarily split families, but we do not unilaterally take that action,” said PHA spokesperson Nichole Tillman. “We believe it would be counterproductive to forcibly split up an intact family that has not requested to move and wishes to remain together.”

» READ MORE: Fatal Fairmount fire was a once-in-a-generation tragedy. Here’s how it unfolded.

Even if the family was in line for a house or multiple units that could fit it, PHA’s waiting lists are years long, and the family’s circumstances would not have qualified it for an expedited emergency transfer.

Experts said that the link between residential overcrowding and increased fire dangers is not well-established, and it is unclear if it factored into the Fairmount fire’s outcome, based on the initial findings of the investigation into the fire.

A 1997 study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency concluded that overcrowding would invariably lead to more fire deaths, particularly among low-income families.

“One way low income families deal with the lack of affordable housing is by doubling up in homes with extended family members or friends,” reads the study. “By increasing the number of people in a given household, the number of potential victims of a fire also rises. This is especially true for households with very young or very old household members who may be unable to escape flames or smoke on their own.”

» READ MORE: Fairmount rowhouse apartment where 12 people died in a fire did not have an extinguisher, records show

The city’s fire code does not require structures like the 23rd Street apartment to be equipped with fire escapes or extinguishers. But even if the home were so equipped, over-occupancy can make those tools less effective.

“You’re overloading your designed egress options,” said Karl Fippinger, vice president for fire and disaster mitigation for the International Code Council, a nonprofit that writes model safety standards for buildings. “Fire prevention and fire containment resources are spread thinner.”

Regardless, the 23rd Street blaze, one of two fatal fires in low-income units within the same week, immediately cast a spotlight on the shortage of public housing in Philadelphia, which leads to overcrowding and dangerous conditions.

Both city officials and Jeremiah have also said they did not act to split the family up for a variety of other reasons, including sensitivity toward preserving multigenerational households.

“There is nothing in policy that precludes them from continuing to reside in that home as an intergenerational family. This is something that resonates frankly in many Black and brown communities and is certainly not unique to Philadelphia,” Jeremiah said at a Tuesday news conference.

He also implied the family did not want to be separated.

“There’ll be an opportunity to assess whether or not … we should have moved them even if they didn’t want to,” Jeremiah said, in response to reporters’ queries last week about overcrowding.

Back in 2011, however, the agency required McDonald to move for this exact reason. And two friends of McDonald’s daughter Virginia Thomas have recently said that she was actively seeking to escape the increasingly crowded apartment.

“She was like, ‘I don’t want to be here no more. I’m trying to get out of here, to find a place for me and my kids,’” said Margaret Wayne, paternal grandmother to some of Thomas’ children. “Something was bothering her.”

While PHA maintains that none of the residents in the Fairmount home requested a transfer to a larger unit or to be split up into multiple dwellings, occupancy guidelines indicate the onus lies on agency officials — not tenants themselves — to proactively initiate transfers to reduce overcrowding.

“PHA will transfer resident families when the family size has changed and the family is now too large (underhoused),” according to its policy handbook. “Transfers will be initiated by PHA when applicable household changes dictate the need for an occupancy standard transfer. … Occupancy standards transfers are mandatory for the resident.”

Collins, the housing advocate, said PHA’s duty to act was clear. While housing shortages could mean years of waiting, she said PHA had years to find an alternative beginning in 2016, when it first learned the family had outgrown the 23rd Street apartment. It also has options to expedite moving the family into a larger unit, or to multiple smaller units.

“[PHA] is making assumptions without taking any of their own steps,” she said. “There isn’t any indication at this point that they ever asked the family if they were even willing to separate.”

She added that rising rental prices, a resumption of evictions, the pandemic, and job losses will continue to drive more low-income residents into shared housing.

“We’re seeing a lot more multigenerational housing, both private and public. Particularly during the pandemic, we had a lot of people unable to pay rent,” she said. “People with eviction records have trouble finding housing. So, they’ll often double up with family members.”

» READ MORE: Fairmount fire must be Philly’s wake-up call for safe, affordable housing | Editorial