The fire that engulfed a student house on Arbor Street early last Thursday morning certainly attracted its share of headlines during the weekend, but if history is any guide, this fire – like similar preventable ones in the recent past – will soon fade into obscurity. Despite earlier house fires that caused property damage, little has been done to improve the safety of off-campus housing. But with a University student still hospitalized, the most recent blaze should serve as a sobering wake-up call for landlords and city officials alike. Having promised to both improve off-campus living situations and increase student leverage on City Council, the Michigan Student Assembly is more than fit to tackle this issue.
The Ann Arbor News reported that the fire alarms in the Arbor house did not go off until the students had rushed out after being awoken by the smell of smoke. As many students can probably attest to, a properly sensitive smoke alarm can be triggered by a burnt bag of popcorn. Whether the detectors were damaged, placed in the wrong locations or there were simply not enough, something went wrong.
Like many student rental properties, the house on Arbor Street lacked a fire escape. The inherent danger of a third-story bedroom without fire escapes should be clear – by the time the smoke reaches the third floor, the fire has progressed upward, often cutting off first-floor exits and stairways. Yet the city’s building code, for one reason or another, exempts some three-story buildings from having a fire escape. In the absence of a stricter fire code, landlords with three-floor properties must provide alternate exits such as emergency fire ladders. More generally, landlords must begin treating their properties as private homeowners would. No one would allow their family to live in an unsafe building, yet absentee landlords are content with marginal safety precautions. Working fire alarms and an adequate number of exits in case of emergency are basic landlord services, not amenities students have to fight for.
The city is responsible for enforcing the fire code to protect students from their landlords’ negligence. But the high demand for housing means students are competing for properties, removing landlords’ incentives to provide safe accommodations. The city can create an incentive by performing yearly housing inspections – which are not currently required – and fining landlords for unsafe conditions.
Fire safety is a perfect issue for the new MSA City Council liaison to spearhead. The purpose of the liaison is to act as an intermediary between students and the City Council. The dangerous nature of the current situation requires swift action – which is more likely to be achieved while the recent fire is still on people’s minds. While many student issues will benefit from increased communication with the City Council, this particular issue requires Council action and should be added to the shortlist of liaison goals. It is time to exercise foresight in order to prevent another serious fire.