After the fire: a reality check for condo owners

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Multifamily housing may seem to provide a low-maintenance lifestyle, an a more affordable alternative to owning or leasing a detached single family home.

But, in fact, attached housing can cost more to maintain and insure in the long run. Plus, attached walls and stacked housing units create increased risk of fire, resulting in property damage, personal injury, and even fatalities.

Condominium and homeowner associations present a higher risk for residents than traditional apartment communities, mainly because of the multiple owner model of management in the association.

In an association-governed community, each apartment-style or townhouse unit is individually owned and maintained, while the condo or homeowners’ association maintains common infrastructure such as:

  • electrical lines that distribute power to more than one unit
  • telecommunication wiring
  • plumbing and sewage that serves more than one unit
  • common hallways, stairways, lobbies
  • shared amenities such as swimming pools, exercise rooms, moving viewing rooms, roof decks, and the like
  • elevators in high rise buildings
  • parking garages, and/or shared driveways

The physical and governance structure of owned multifamily housing creates the need for several layers of insurance coverage. The association must carry adequate insurance to repair and replace property that is owned or managed in common, while each unit owner is responsible for carrying insurance to repair and replace interior fixtures, finishes, and belongings. Townhouse owners may also maintain responsibility for insuring exterior surfaces such as siding, windows, doors, roofs, decks, and porches.

At the same time, individual owners rely on the association’s board — with or without guidance of a management agent — to maintain common infrastructure in order to ensure the safety of its residents. But sometimes a condominium or homeowners’ association fails to maintain fire safety systems, and, incredibly, some older housing communities lack fire sprinkler systems, fire escape routes for upper floor residents, and even functional smoke alarms.

The results can be tragic.

Some recent reports follow.

Firefighter fire graphic
(Pixabay.com free image)

Even after a fire in 2006, this Illinois condo association didn’t install fire sprinklers.

Condo associations often object to the high cost of retrofitting older buildings with fire sprinklers, firewalls, and other safety measures. And state Legislatures, under pressure from community association and Realtor lobbies, have repeatedly avoided a hard mandate for retrofitting fire safety system, even in the case of a complete rebuild.

The end result in Prospect Heights: a second fire that could have been prevented.

Could Prospect Heights condo fire have been prevented? Why it spread so quickly

Jake Griffin
Marni Pyke

Updated
7/22/2018 8:35 AM

When firefighters were alerted to a fire at one of the 16 buildings that make up the River Trails Condominium complex in Prospect Heights Wednesday afternoon, they knew the blaze could quickly get out of hand.

And it did, gutting three buildings and leaving dozens homeless in just hours.

Fire safety officials blame the speed and scope on a lack of modern fire safety devices and construction. The 46-year-old complex had no building-wide fire alarms, sprinkler systems, fire walls or attic separators — all fire safety features that experts say would have stopped or significantly slowed the inferno.

Each building was a tinderbox, fire officials said.

Authorities believe the blaze started in a second-floor unit in the southernmost building on McIntosh Court and rapidly spread upward and outward. Once it reached the attic, the blaze had unfettered access to the other three buildings.

The mansard-style roof that hangs over the third floor also allowed the fire to glide effortlessly along the structure’s side as the flames fed on air inside the enclosed eaves. A mild breeze then helped stoke the flames.

Firefighters made every attempt to stop or slow the spread of flames, but they were thwarted by the fire’s ability to keep moving until it got to the northernmost building. There, they made a successful stand against the encroaching flames.

“We tried to cut in several spots before that to try and stop it,” Prospect Heights Fire District Chief Drew Smith said. “It was a futile effort.”

After scores of firefighters from around the area attacked the blaze for hours, three of the buildings were left smoldering while a fourth had significant water and smoke damage. Three people, including one firefighter, sustained minor injuries.

Investigators said a juvenile accidentally ignited the blaze. No charges have been filed, authorities said.

“If this would have happened at 1 a.m. instead of 1 p.m. like it did, I don’t know how this would have turned out,” Smith said, alluding to a likelihood of multiple casualties.

New apartments are required to have sprinkler systems to suppress fires, firewalls to keep fires from spreading to other units, and attic separators that restrict overhead air flow in the building to lower the risk of fires spreading. None of the buildings that burned Wednesday had those, Smith said, and none had building-wide fire alarms.

Because of their age, the Prospect Heights buildings were not required to have those fire safety measures in place.

And under current city code, if the apartments are rebuilt, they still might not have them. If more than 50 percent of the buildings that burned are salvageable, the city can’t force the owners to retrofit the buildings to comply with modern fire codes.

“It’s a little early yet, so it’s not something we’ve discussed with the council,” City Administrator Joe Wade said. “It’s not uncommon for cities to adjust codes and provide a period to address that. This is the second large fire we’ve had at that development, so it’s worthwhile for us to look at.”

That’s how firefighters knew the initial call meant trouble. They had fought this battle before.

On Christmas Eve morning 2006, a blaze caused by Christmas lights in a second-floor unit had the entire third floor engulfed in 10 minutes, according to fire officials at the time. That fire also spread to a neighboring building, though firefighters were able to quickly extinguish it. In the end, only 30 percent of the building was destroyed and it was reconstructed without a sprinkler system or other modern fire suppression measures, Smith said.

Most of the River Trails units are individually owned and rented out to others. Tom Infusino owns four units, three of which he said were “demolished” by Wednesday’s fire. He was also the River Trails condo board president for 10 years before being voted out in January during an internal spat among owners over the future of the complex.

Infusino said he has no recollection of the board discussing retrofitting the buildings with fire safety devices when the 2006 fire happened. The reconstruction was done to code, he said, and the buildings all follow the city’s current requirements.

“Do I think the buildings are safe? Yeah, I believe they are safe, and thank God nobody got hurt,” he said. “If the city council required (retrofitting) we’d definitely have to do it and we would do it.”

But he’s worried that the cost would require a special assessment that would possibly be passed on to renters, who might then be priced out of their homes.

Estimates indicate retrofitting existing buildings with sprinklers costs between $2 and $7 per square foot, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The 16 buildings at River Trails contain roughly 380,000 square feet of living space, putting the estimated cost at somewhere between $760,000 and $2.7 million.

Fire experts said these apartments aren’t the only ones in the suburbs at risk of a catastrophic fire.

“There are apartment buildings all over the area built in the 1960s and 1970s that are not sprinklered” and are grandfathered in like this, Warrenville Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Lee Westrom said.

Read more:

www.dailyherald.com/news/20180721/could-prospect-heights-condo-fire-have-been-prevented-why-it-spread-so-quickly

See also:

Prospect Heights condo fire caused $10 million in damage (Daily Herald)

 

The complexities of rebuilding

Many owners of association-governed condos and townhouses underestimate how long it takes and how much it cost to rebuild following the destruction of a fire. It’s not uncommon for the process to stretch out over several years.

Quite often, insurance reimbursements fall short of the actual cost to rebuild. Mismanagement by the condo association board leads to inefficiencies in hiring qualified contractors, and paying a fair market price for services.

In the following example from Vermont, the association is involved in lawsuits with its insurer and contractor. A receiver was recently appointed by the court, when  judge concluded the board was incapable of managing the association’s affairs.

Mountainside Condos still unfinished

Written by Lisa Loomis

A receiver has been appointed to handle completing the reconstruction of 36 Mountainside Condominium units that burned in February 2014.

Reconstruction of the Warren condominium complex was complicated by the fact that its Act 250 permit was initially denied and granted only after an appeal. Further complicating the rebuild were changes in state fire and safety codes that increased the per-unit cost of the rebuild. Recognizing that insurance proceeds for the rebuild may not be sufficient to cover the costs of reconstruction, the association approved a special assessment of $1.5 million in October 2016 to cover the shortfall.

Instability on the condominium board didn’t improve matters much, nor did the fact that the board initially hired a contractor for the rebuild but later switched to a different contractor, resulting in a lawsuit from the first contractor.

SUIT AGAINST BOARD

This led to a group of condo owners, whose units were destroyed by the fire, bringing suit against the board in March 2016. After court hearings held in 2016, 2018 and May 15 and 16 of this year, Judge Mary Teachout ruled that Thomas Lauzon would be appointed receiver for the project.

In her decision she noted that at an April 23 board meeting the project was partially built with no money available to continue and construction was about to stop.

“The discussion about whether to do an assessment was at such a level of generality that tough decision-making was not possible and did not occur. The transcript demonstrates that … the group is simply not capable of handling the difficult circumstances that the association now faces, and that have been created by the actions or inactions of the board over the last year,” Teachout wrote.

Mountainside Condominium Association is involved in a lawsuit with its insurance company, Vermont Mutual, which paid the association $4.9 million as well as its first contractor, Engelberth Construction. Engelberth sued the association for $325,000.

Read more:

www.valleyreporter.com/stories/12609-mountainside-condos-still-unfinished

The following report reminds owners that, during the long process of rebuilding, the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and condo association assessments must be paid, in addition to the cost of temporary housing.

Insurance may not cover the cost of rent beyond 6 months to a years, even though it can take much longer than that to rebuild the condo or townhouse.

Plumwood Terrace Tenants Upset Over Lack of Action After Fire That Destroyed Building (Ben Oldach WHO-TV)

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Source:

Plumwood Terrace Tenants Upset Over Lack of Action After Fire That Destroyed Building

 

More fire safety reports:

One of the reasons many condo associations are going smoke-free:

Tigard condo damaged by fire that started from improper disposal of cigarettes
Fox 12 Oregon (July 27, 2018)

 

Florida has kicked the can down the road on sprinkler retrofitting for many years. But this year, the Governor has set a hard deadline for compliance with fire safety regulations. It will mean substantial special assessments for condo owners, some of whom may be forced to sell their units due to the additional cost.

Thousands of high rise condo owners in South Florida must comply with fire safety in buildings

www.wptv.com/news/region-c-palm-beach-county/west-palm-beach/thousands-of-high-rise-condo-owners-in-south-florida-must-comply-with-fire-safety-in-buildings

 

A reminder that fires can also occur in very small condo buildings. Fortunately, this building was equipped with fire alarms.

3-alarm fire rips through Torrington condominium Fox 61 (CT) July 21, 2018

 

Here’s an example of fire and smoke damage in a large city high-rise, resulting in a lawsuit. Unfortunately, the fire resulted in one fatality and smoke damage to several units. There was no smoke alarm installed in the decedent’s condo unit.

Although only a few units were damaged, there are no fire sprinklers in the building.

According to the report, Donald J. Trump “in the 1990s … worked aggressively to thwart a law that would have required all existing skyscrapers to be retrofitted with sprinklers. According to a January 1999 article in the New York Post, Trump personally ‘called a dozen [city] council members to lobby against sprinklers.’”

Trump Tower Condo Board Sues Over Fatal Fire Damage
Habitat Magazine, July 27, 2018

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