Worcester fire officials call for rental property registry after fatal blaze

Fire department leaders are proposing regular rental unit inspections and a registry of rental properties


Kiernan Dunlop
masslive.com

WORCESTER, Mass. — Two programs the Worcester Fire Department is recommending to the city council would’ve helped the department in its response to the fatal Gage Street fire, Acting Deputy Fire Chief Adam Roche said Tuesday.

One of the programs would have the department going into rental units to make sure everything is up to code, Roche said.

Four people died on May 14 in a four-alarm fire at 2 Gage St. in Worcester, Mass.
Four people died on May 14 in a four-alarm fire at 2 Gage St. in Worcester, Mass. (Photo/Tom Matthews/MassLive/Tribune News Service)

Rental units would have a required inspection every five years, according to a letter City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. sent to Worcester City Council.

Roche specified that he was not saying there were or were not violations at 2 Gage St., the site of the recent deadly fire.

The other program the department is recommending, along with the Department of Inspectional Services, is a rental registry.

The registry is meant to ensure there is current contact information for property owners, property managers or people that are in a position to make decisions about a property, according to Augustus.

Having the contact information would give the city a quick way to contact the owners or managers in the case of a violation or emergency, he said.

The registry would also include how many units are in a building, how many are residential and how many bedrooms are in each unit.

“During a fire emergency, ready access to this data can save time and ultimately save lives,” Augustus said, “This ability to collect and share building information has been recommended in multiple reports and NIOSH fire fatality investigations.”

On May 14, four people died in a four-alarm fire at 2 Gage St. in Worcester.

It was a complex scene that involved the collapse of the building’s roof and the presence of snakes in the building, according to city officials. Two days later on May 16, the fire department could not confirm how many residents were in the building or if any residents were still unaccounted for.

The fire is still under investigation.

In a May 20th letter showing his support for the two programs, Acting Fire Chief Martin Dyer said the city is “all too familiar with the devastating toll of fires.”

“This week alone over 50 residents were displaced by just a few fire incidents and four residents lost their lives,” Dyer wrote, “The Rental Registry program will not eliminate the hazard but I am confident that it will have a significant impact on the safety and well-being of Worcester residents.”

Registration will cost $15 per rental unit or $25 per rental lot and annual registration renewals will cost $5 per unit or $15 per rental lot, according to Augustus.

The city currently only inspects rental units on a complaint basis, according to Augustus. If the five-year inspection cycle goes into effect, the cost for property owners is $50 per unit.

If the city discovers illegal or unregulated units, the zoning ordinance gives the owner option to make the units legal. If the units can’t be brought to code the unit can no longer be inhabited, according to Augustus.

While Dyer said many apartments in the city are well maintained and safe, the city knows from too many examples “that some of the units are in disrepair and lack the basic safety requirements.

Augustus included the rental registry in the city’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget. The budget allots funds for the city to hire five new inspectors for the program. The $453,404 increase in the Department of Inspectional Services budget is mainly due to the addition of five sanitary inspectors, according to the budget book, in addition to a head clerk, principal building inspector, deputy sealer of weights and civil site inspector.

“[The rental registry] would hold bad landlords accountable and ensure that households across the income spectrum are guaranteed safe, livable conditions,” Augustus said in a letter accompanying the proposed budget.

This isn’t the first time the city council has discussed a rental registry, the Telegram & Gazette reported in April 2019 that the city council backed the idea with some caveats.

Councilor At-Large Khrystian King called for an analysis on how the registry might affect people who have Section 8 housing vouchers and community development corporations that own multi-unit housing in the city, the newspaper reported.

The then-city council approved an order to request the commissioner of the Department of Inspectional Services develop a rental registry for non-owner-occupied residential properties.

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