Fear, Foreclosure, Frustration, Fire
With a growing share of the nation’s housing stock sitting empty, the fire service in Columbus, Ohio, battles a related problem: fire in empty homes, almost all of it arson. What can we learn from Columbus, and how can we use it to make our own communities safer?
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
By Alisa Wolf
Driving through the South End of Columbus, Ohio, Karry Ellis has a hard time believing that the working-class neighborhood he grew up in has become the blighted area he observes from his car.
The neighborhood’s 32 square blocks are pockmarked with boarded-up homes, and plywood has been pried off many windows and doors. Some properties are gang hangouts. In others, homeless people find shelter and set up makeshift electrical systems. Neighborhood kids play in other vacant homes, many of which are structurally unsound.
Ellis has professional reasons to worry about the neighborhood, too. He’s an assistant chief in Columbus’s Division of Fire and head of the city’s Fire Prevention Bureau, overseeing the bureau’s fire inspections, community relations, and arson units. For the city’s fire companies, all that vacant housing is a significant concern. There were 5,300 vacant residential buildings throughout Columbus as of July, according to a study by VWB Research, a local firm that was asked to help the city determine the most effective way to distribute federal stimulus money for rehabilitation and demolition of vacant properties. These vacancies range from recent bank foreclosures to homes that have been abandoned for generations. Ellis says the number may have been as high as 7,000 over the past year, and mentions a section of the South End where two out of three homes are vacant; three quarters of them have had at least one fire. Many other
Columbus neighborhoods are also deeply affected, as is the Division of Fire. Twelve firefighters were injured in vacant property fires in 2007, and at least one civilian died. In June, two firefighters were injured in an arson fire in a vacant home. “This is a big, big problem,” Ellis says.
Columbus is the state capitol, a booming business center, home to Ohio State University, and Ohio’s largest city, with a population of 733,000. It’s also just one example of a U.S. city wrestling with the problem of fire—the overwhelming majority of it arson—in its empty residential properties. While much of the media attention on the mushrooming of the nation’s empty-house problem has focused on the wave of foreclosures in middle-class suburban neighborhoods from California to Florida, cities hard-hit during the recession of the 1980s, including other Ohio cities such as Cleveland and Dayton, have been dealing with the fallout from predatory and subprime lending for years. Long-term job loss, population loss, older housing stock, and property tax delinquency have taken their toll on these older cities, which have suffered additional increases in vacant housing in the run-up to the housing crisis that spiked last fall.
Nationally, the number and percent of vacant housing units, including single-family and multifamily homes as well as apartment units (but not second homes or vacation homes), have increased steadily since 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey. The numbers released by the Census Bureau in July show that one in nine U.S. homes stands vacant today, which translates into about 19 million vacant houses and apartments nationwide—up from 18.6 million a year earlier. The vacancy rate in homes and apartments combined represents 15 percent of the total U.S. housing, which is higher than it was during previous recessions: 11 percent in 1991, 9 percent in 1984.
Data compiled by NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division show that, as the vacant home problem has grown, so too has its corresponding fire problem. In 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, fires in vacant homes rose 11 percent, from 18,900 in 2005 to 21,000 in 2006. (By comparison, the overall number of reported home structure fires during this period averaged 378,600 per year.) A larger share of the reported vacant property fires occurred in residences than in commercial property—63 percent were vacant home fires, including 58 percent in one- or two-family dwellings and 5 percent in apartments or multiple-family properties. Arson is rampant in empty homes; according to NFPA statistics, 46 percent of vacant home fires during the 2003–2006 period were intentionally set, compared to 10 percent of structure fires overall. Ellis puts the arson rate for vacant home fires in Columbus at “easily 90 percent.”
Ned Pettus, Jr., has been with the fire service for more than 30 years, and has been chief of the Columbus Division of Fire for seven years. “The problem has grown so large [nationwide] it’s got everyone’s attention,” Pettus says, “but we’ve always had to deal with it.” In that way, Columbus finds itself in the unenviable position of being at the vanguard of a growing national problem. In Columbus, Pettus has led the fight on a number of different fronts; some things work, some don’t. Regardless, a lot of communities around the country would be wise to pay attention to what’s happening in Columbus.
Poverty, foreclosure, arson
As in most communities, the empty-house problem in Columbus is a tangle of complex social, economic, and safety issues. The roots of the problem, Ellis says, include poverty and the host of social ills that accompany it: high unemployment, illegal activity, truancy. In his investigative work, for example, it’s not unusual for Ellis to encounter entire families engaged in criminal activity. In one high-profile case last March, Ellis and his team arrested a man for arson and, in a separate incident, apprehended the man’s then-12-year-old son for his complicity in a fire set by a 15-year-old friend. “In a one-week period of interviews of 12 adults and 10 to 12 juveniles,” Ellis says, “none of the adults had a job and none of the juveniles were in school.”
Low-income areas such as the South End are among those hardest hit by the rise in vacant homes. The study of Columbus neighborhoods by VWB Research found that 23 percent of residences are vacant in King-Lincoln, 19 percent in South of Main, and 18 percent in Southern Orchards. One area of western Columbus is the nation’s emptiest, according to an Associated Press analysis published in May, with about 70 percent of the housing sitting vacant. Even those numbers aren’t enough to make Columbus’s vacant and abandoned property the state’s highest, however. A more severe problem persists just up the road in Cleveland, according to a study by Community Research Partners (CRP) Group, which looked at the vacant and abandoned property problem in eight Ohio cities in 2006–2007. In a New York Times Magazine story in March, the county treasurer of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, put the number of empty homes in the city at 15,000.
In those older, inner-city neighborhoods throughout Ohio, where the problems of predatory and subprime lending go back a decade or more, the CRP report found that the number of residential vacant properties had increased substantially over each year of the study. From 2006 to 2008, according to the study, the number of vacant properties identified by Columbus Code Enforcement increased by more than 1,000.
Over the past couple of years, a new housing malady has hit Columbus: waves of home foreclosures in its wealthier outlying neighborhoods, areas hard-hit by the combination of over-mortgaged homeowners and sinking home prices. Though citywide foreclosure filings have remained “pretty level” in recent years, according to Roberta Garber, CRP’s executive director, foreclosures in the newer parts of the city are beginning to outpace those in old Columbus. Garber cites the city’s unemployment rate, which more than doubled from April 2008 to April 2009. “If this is an enduring economic downturn,” she says, “we might see a [foreclosure] spike.”
That’s the kind of scenario that keeps Ellis awake at night. “As the economy forces more homes to become vacant, you can bet that more houses will burn, and that more will burn for profit,” he says. According to Division of Fire statistics, fires in all vacant buildings—all but “a few” of those buildings are residential, Ellis says—so far this year are up sharply over last year, and are on pace to match 2007’s number of 161 citywide. What’s different, though, is the damage those fires are causing; this year’s vacant-building property damage will almost certainly top $3 million, compared to $2.1 million in 2007 and $2.3 million last year. “Of the arson fires, probably 40 percent are trying to collect for profit,” Ellis says. “The South End is starting to look like the South Bronx in the 1970s, with these huge empty spaces because so many homes have burned.”
A growing fire problem and downward economic trends put extra pressure on Columbus’s already strapped fire division. Loss of tax revenue due to vacant homes affects the city budget, 73 percent of which goes to the police and fire service. Pettus estimates that the average fire response costs upwards of $5,000, and rising fuel and maintenance costs translate into the likelihood of higher per-response expenses in the future. Any reductions to fire service staff and resources, Pettus says, would be coming “at the worst possible time.”
A battle on many fronts
Pettus believes the best way to avoid the myriad costs of vacant housing fires is to prevent houses from becoming vacant in the first place. His concern is partly personal. The first line-of-duty death he experienced as a young fire service professional was of a firefighter who was working in a vacant building. The second was a firefighter who died in an intentionally set fire. These incidents, he says, “had a dramatic impact on me.”
In 2007, Pettus received an NFPA scholarship to attend the Harvard University Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program. Russ Sanders, executive secretary of the NFPA/IAFC Metro Fire Chiefs Association, sat on the review panel, and was impressed by Pettus’s progressive thinking and openness to new ideas. “Ned has demonstrated tremendous leadership in developing partnerships and implementing strategies,” says Sanders, who notes that the chief’s leadership style has been noticed—he was recognized recently by the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, a section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and NFPA, which named him Fire Chief of the Year.
Sharon Gamache, director of NFPA’s High-Risk Outreach Programs, says Pettus is unusual in that he approaches a problem not just from a fire-service perspective, but as a challenge for the entire community. “He’s reached out to groups beyond the fire service that look at issues like land usage and shrinking cities,” says Gamache. “He’s willing to take the initiative, even if he doesn’t see results right away.”
The vacant-homes problem demands all the ingenuity Pettus can muster. One strategy he researched during the Harvard program focused on the December 1999 fire in a vacant warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, which claimed the lives of six firefighters. As a result, some communities had begun using signage systems to label vacant properties, so that responders would know at a glance whether the house was structurally damaged or slated for demolition—vital information in determining how aggressively to stage a fire attack. Last year, when NFPA asked him to partner with its Public Education Division on an Urban Fire Safety Project, two of the three initiatives Pettus chose to concentrate on addressed the problem of vacant housing. One focus was to partner on the issue with national and local organizations, and another was to identify high-risk communities for delivering fire safety programs by analyzing numbers of deaths and residential fires by Census Bureau tract, and creating a database to track results.
Pettus has been trying to take a more scientific approach to the problem for a while. In 2007, he responded to Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s request to target prevention efforts in areas of high arson incidence by requesting a new computer-aided dispatch system to replace the antiquated system the division was using. The purchase has been delayed due to budget constraints. (“We’re basically working on a 1984 computer,” Ellis says. “We’ve got tons of data, but it’s really hard to get any of it.”) Meanwhile, Pettus has made do, setting up a large map with colored pins showing the quantity and locations of vacant-building fires to reveal high-risk areas.
Even using this low-tech method, fire investigators had no trouble pinpointing areas of concern, including the South End, and have launched a multifaceted effort over the past year to address the problem. Working with other agencies, including local police and U.S. Marshals, the nine-member Fire Investigations Unit, all of whom carry sidearms and make arrests, has been highly visible in problem neighborhoods over the past six months. Surveillance of vacant homes included a sweep in March and the arrests of 15 people on various charges, from arson to domestic violence. Ellis also organized a door-to-door smoke detector campaign, installing smoke detectors where residents had none and handing out literature on fire safety. The information included the phone number of the Fire Investigations Unit that residents could call with tips about suspicious activity in vacant houses. Once notified, the department would contact code enforcement officials to secure the premises and affix placards to the houses; an orange placard, for example, indicates that no one is to be in the house without Code Enforcement officials present, which allows the Columbus Police Department to arrest vagrants found inside. Other efforts are designed to maintain empty properties: cutting the grass, removing trash, repairing sagging gutters or broken porch railings.
Jeffrey Happ, a captain in the Fire Investigations Unit, says the campaign has had an enormous impact. “Fires are down about 70 percent right now in the South End because of the presence of the agencies working together,” he says. “A big reason is that we let the people in those areas know we’re there, and that we aren’t going anywhere.”
“What happened here?”
Despite the successes, many residents in Columbus’s embattled neighborhoods remain frustrated by the seeming intractability of the problems.
David Sawyer has heard a lot of that frustration. A lieutenant in Columbus’s Division of Fire and a community relations officer with the Fire Prevention Bureau, Sawyer has been visiting neighborhood groups across the city to encourage residents to take action by boarding up vacant homes on their blocks, maintaining the yards, and even pooling resources to buy vacant homes to subvert absentee slumlords and out-of-state developers. But he’s encountering resistance, he says, from residents “who are more concerned about code enforcement and arrests than in learning what to do to prevent fires in their neighborhood.” He laments a community meeting he organized last year, where only a handful of people showed up. Part of the problem is fear—“You can imagine trying to give a prevention presentation in a neighborhood intimidated by gangs,” Sawyer says—and part of it is impatience on the part of people exhausted by the toll of life in blighted neighborhoods.
“People are demoralized,” says Rebecca Hunley, a community activist who grew up in Franklinton, Columbus’s oldest neighborhood. She left in 1980 to live abroad and work out of state. When she returned home nine years later, she encountered a neighborhood that had undergone a rapid slide into low-income decrepitude, the well-maintained blocks she remembered from her youth replaced by vacant buildings and boarded-up windows. “Whole blocks looked like a war zone,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘what happened here?’”
The answer was complex. Predatory landlords were buying Franklinton homes at rock-bottom prices and renting them out, but not maintaining them, Hunley says. The area, which lies below the level of the Scioto and the Olentangy rivers, had been declared a floodplain in 1983 by FEMA and, later that year, by the city, and insurance rates rose sharply as a result. Maintenance and rehabilitation costs for homes also went up, due to stringent building code requirements, discouraging revitalization efforts. Homeowners—some of whom had inherited properties—simply walked away. By the mid-1990s, crack dealers were operating out of abandoned homes.
Hunley refused to give in. In 2005, she bought a rundown Queen Anne in the neighborhood, did a gut rehab of the place, and moved into the house the following year. Neighborhood boosters had hoped for a wave of revitalization in Franklinton following the completion of a floodwall in 2004, which allowed strict building regulations to be lifted and insurance rates to drop. But when the global financial crisis hit last fall, Hunley says, the number of vacant houses immediately increased around her—and so did the number of fires in and around those properties. On her street alone, Hunley recorded 18 fires—16 in dumpsters and two in vacant houses—in a period of less than two months.
Hunley spends many hours volunteering with community and homeowner groups, working with city code officials, police, arson investigators, city council members, and other city agencies to do what she can for her struggling neighborhood. She knows she’ll never recover the money she put into her house—refinishing the hardwood floors, restoring the turret and stained glass—and that’s okay with her. “It’s home,” she says. She believes that her efforts and those of other concerned citizens has, and will, make a difference in the neighborhood. “I know what this neighborhood once was and will be again,” she says. But she’s frustrated by the tenacity of the problem and what she perceives as the city’s reluctance to prosecute non-resident slum owners, hire more police and code enforcers, and put more teeth into code enforcement.
Sawyer’s sympathetic, but he says there’s only so much he can do. “When a house is foreclosed, I have no enforcement powers for any fire code violation,” he says. “I have fire prevention advice, but as far as enforcement goes, there’s nothing I can do.”
Sawyer’s only option is to alert the Code Enforcement Office in the city’s Development Department, which may send a code officer out for an inspection. If the building is open on the first floor, says Dana Rose, the Development Department’s code enforcement manager, the code official can issue an emergency order to board the house up within 24 hours, and if the owner doesn’t comply, code enforcers can go in and secure the home themselves. Civil or criminal action may be taken. If there are other violations, the Code Enforcement Office may issue a 30-day order and, if that’s not met, code officials can go in and clean up the property. But it’s hard to keep up with some homes, which are abandoned for long periods of time. Banks may start a foreclosure proceeding and then stop, deciding the cost isn’t worth it, leaving the property in ownership limbo. The process of tracking down property owners and initiating legal action can take years.
In the meantime, Ellis says, the only way to save Columbus’s increasingly empty neighborhoods is to make them more secure. “We need to arrest more people, and we need to limit the access to certain areas by closing off streets,” he says. “Sure, it’s extreme, but what’s the alternative? If we don’t do something, if we stop throwing ideas out there and trying things, we’ll just see more houses falling apart, more fires, more people getting hurt. We need to secure these neighborhoods so we can create investment zones for public and private initiatives, which is the only way we’re going to get these neighborhoods back.”
The fire service and related agencies, Ellis says, are key to making this transformation happen. “We live in these neighborhoods, we know these people, and we’re passionate about fixing the problems,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to see a neighborhood where you grew up just fall apart. We can have a big voice on this issue. We’re not going to give up.”
Pettus urges his city to keep the big picture in mind. The decline of Columbus’s struggling neighborhoods has taken place over decades, after all, while organized efforts to combat arson and other vacant-building fire problems were launched only recently. It’s Pettus’s hope that other cities can learn from what Columbus is doing, even if the jury’s still out on the effectiveness of those efforts. “We don’t expect to solve the problem,” Pettus says, “but we can help.”
No easy fixes
Some of the tactics the fire service is using to fight the fire-in-vacant-homes problem in Columbus, Ohio
National and statewide partnerships: During his partnership with NFPA’s Urban Fire Safety Project in 2007 and 2008, Ned Pettus, Jr., chief of the Division of Fire in Columbus, contacted Rebuild Ohio, a consortium of local government, nonprofit, and civic organizations dedicated to statewide revitalization. The Division of Fire also helped NFPA produce “Preventing Arson Together,” a presentation designed for use by public fire safety educators. (The presentation can be downloaded from www.nfpa.org/arson.) Pettus also activated the defunct Metro Chiefs’ Committee of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association; the group is developing mutual aide strategies to cut fire response costs statewide, savings that could result in additional resources for education, fire investigation, and code enforcement.
Signage: The Division of Fire is developing a comprehensive signage system that would indicate the severity of structural compromise for every known vacant building in the city. Houses slated for demolition are marked with red placards to alert firefighters of condemned properties and that operations should be conducted from the exterior only, with limited exception for civilian life safety.
Identifying and tracking arson fires: Each of the seven fire battalions in Columbus can access a website that lists vacant homes in the city, along with their condition. Fire company officers can call the Code Enforcement Office to report their observations, such as newly boarded-up homes, which are then logged into the website’s database. Information from the community, such as a neighbor’s complaint about a vacant home, is also entered into the database. The Code Enforcement Office conducts an annual sweep of vacant properties in the city and rates the condition of each structure. For arson tracking, the Division hopes to replace its antiquated manual system with a computer-aided system, but budget constraints have delayed that request.
Local partnerships: David Sawyer, a lieutenant in Columbus’s Division of Fire and a community relations officer with the Fire Prevention Bureau, runs outreach efforts through a number of statewide and community organizations. He represents the fire department on Franklin County’s “Save Our Homes Task Force,” which brings together legal, financial, real estate, and government organizations working to provide services such as mediation, legal aid, and consumer education to homeowners facing foreclosure. Sawyer also tries to build relationships with community activists, attending meetings in neighborhoods across the city that are struggling with high rates of home vacancies. He follows legislative efforts, including a proposed registry that would track owners of vacant properties and pressure them to sell, and promotes the city’s “Home Again” program, which combats vacant homes in the city through enforcement, prevention, acquisition, rehabilitation, and demolition. The program’s goal is to put 1,000 vacant homes back into productive use by 2012.