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A fire killed four people in a rowhouse with no smoke detectors. Thousands of Philly rentals lack similar oversight.

Fire fatalities hit 21 for the year, after a peak last year.

Neighbor Jamie Halloran, in the gray sweatshirt, lights a candle at a memorial at the scene of a fatal fire on the 3200 block of Hartville Street on Monday.
Neighbor Jamie Halloran, in the gray sweatshirt, lights a candle at a memorial at the scene of a fatal fire on the 3200 block of Hartville Street on Monday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia rowhouse that burned early Sunday morning, killing a tenant and his three children, lacked a rental license and smoke detectors — lapses that went unnoticed for years in a city with no comprehensive inspection policy for rentals.

Since 2014, residents Alexis Rios, 37, and Jasmin Vega, 36, had lived with their three children in a two-story rowhouse on the 3200 block of Hartville Street in the city’s Kensington section through a rent-to-own agreement with owners who had bought the house a decade earlier for $2,000.

The house caught fire around 2 a.m. on Sunday and was quickly consumed, killing Rios and sixth-grader Alexangel Arroyo-Santana, 12; third-grader Yadriel Arroyo-Santana, 9; and kindergartner Yamalier Arroyo-Santana, who would have turned 6 next month.

» READ MORE: 3 children and 1 man dead in North Philly house fire

Vega, their mother, escaped the burning building through a window and was hospitalized. The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the Fire Marshal’s Office, officials said. Causes of death have yet to be determined.

Four months into the year, 21 people have died in fires in Philadelphia. Fire fatalities have been surging in the city. After falling to 19 in 2018, they hit 37 in 2019, fell back to 34 in 2020, and hit 37 again last year.

The Sunday morning inferno follows a fatal fire in January that claimed the lives of 12 people, including nine children, in an overcrowded Philadelphia Housing Authority unit in the Fairmount neighborhood. In that fire, the victims lived in a unit without working smoke detectors; most of the alarms had had their batteries removed. The disabled detectors — installed by PHA — were older models with nine-volt batteries. Newer, higher-quality alarms take 10-year lithium batteries and are generally tamperproof, according to fire officials.

» READ MORE: Philly fire commissioner after Fairmount blaze: ‘Root cause’ is lack of access to safe, affordable housing

But while PHA officials say their staff had regularly inspected the Fairmount apartment, L&I confirmed Monday that there was no record of any housing code or fire-code inspections at the Kensington house, where the owners say they had never procured a rental license.

The lack of such inspections is hardly uncommon in Philadelphia, where privately owned rental units — and particularly those under rent-to-own agreements — are subject to only cursory oversight, despite warnings from housing advocates and rising numbers of renters as home ownership declines citywide.

Philadelphia requires both new and existing housing to have at least one smoke detector per floor, but these rules are infrequently enforced. That’s because more than half of all city rental apartments are unknown to city officials — and most of those that are licensed go uninspected.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia inspects only 7% of its rental units each year, Pew says

A 2019 census estimate found nearly 300,000 renter-occupied households in Philadelphia, the vast majority of which were single-family dwellings. But Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the city’s department of Licenses & Inspections, said there are only about 68,000 rental licenses in Philadelphia. Although a single license can cover numerous units, past estimates found that more than 45% of all rental properties in the city were likely unlicensed.

However, even those that are licensed are not subject to regular inspections. While such cities as Baltimore, Detroit, or Washington inspect rental properties as part of the licensing process, Philadelphia does not. That means inspections generally only occur in response to complaints.

As a result, a 2021 Pew study found the city’s rental stock was “largely unmonitored,” with just 7% of units subject to inspection in a given year.

Ardmore residents Edwin and Gloria Ruiz, who purchased the Hartville Street property in 2004, also own another brick rowhouse on the corner of Widener and North Mascher Streets, in Olney. No one answered the door on Monday afternoon, but there were people inside the home. Records show that this property, too, similarly lacks a rental license.

The Ruiz couple did not respond to a telephone call Monday. On Sunday, Edwin Ruiz said they hadn’t needed to license the Hartville Street property because Vega and Rios were technically owners themselves, due to their rent-to-own arrangement.

Guss, of L&I, disputed that. “It’s the property owner’s legal responsibility to obtain a rental license, period, “ she said. “Agreeing to apply some rent money towards the house’s purchase price at some point has no effect on that responsibility.”

Most rent-to-own agreements in Philadelphia are structured around what is known as a land-installment contract, in which the buyer has an ownership interest in a property and may not be considered a tenant. Michael Froehlich, a housing attorney with Community Legal Services, said that from a regulatory standpoint, they often occupy a grey zone and may receive less scrutiny than conventional leases.

“The reality is that these things are legally murky,” he said. “You’re a quasi-tenant and a quasi-owner.”

No figures track rent-to-own units. But another Pew study this year found that many as one-in-five homeowners surveyed nationally indicated they had sought out so-called “alternative financing” arrangements, including rent-to-own arrangements.

Froehlich said his organization advised clients to avoid these arrangements, which he said burden people with the duties of home ownership without the benefit of building equity. He urged the city to keep a public list of such deals, which he said might provide a guide for inspectors.

Still, the city’s lack of quality affordable housing leaves some renters with few options. Rent-to-own agreements appeal to some who can’t afford to buy outright.

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

In Philadelphia, landlords must renew a property’s rental license once a year for $56. The process requires landlords to be up-to-date on their property taxes and for the properties to be free of any safety or building-code violations.

Since landlords are not legally permitted to collect rent from tenants of a home with an inactive license, officials hope the system serves as a check on property owners. City officials say that tenants, if they learn a property has let its license lapse, can stop paying rent and force improvements.

L&I has struggled for years to fill even the inspector jobs allotted in its budget. In 2020, out of 158 inspector assigned to positions for building and code enforcement, 30 slots were unfilled.

Despite the multiple deaths by fire early this year, there has been little so far in the way of major policy changes from public officials.

Council President Darrell Clarke introduced legislation to give landlords a break on city business taxes in exchange for installing fire escape rope ladders in rental units.

“This is one small step,” he said, “but anything that induces property owners and landlords to add additional fire-safety measures inside their properties is important and worth doing.”

That bill has been in committee since its introduction.

Meanwhile, on Monday afternoon, a memorial to the victims outside the home on Hartville Street continued to grow.

A rosary hung next to a board where the front door once stood. In front of a boarded and blackened window, the memorial included more than 50 candles, bouquets of flowers, teddy bears, toy dinosaurs, and balloons — round, star-shaped, heart-shaped, and one with characters from the popular children’s cartoon Paw Patrol.