June 14 2018 09:16 AM

Fatal blaze calls attention to housing inspection failings

A bouquet of pink and white roses and a small stem of plastic flowers sit underneath a light pole just outside unit 2436 of the LeRoy Froh Housing Complex. Just beyond, the unit itself is closed off by plywood on the first floor windows and a hinged locked plywood door covering the front entrance. Brightly colored stickers and signs are affixed to that plywood entry announcing the property remains a possible crime scene.

The front sidewalk of the complex, at 2400 Reo Road, in South Lansing, is decorated in pink and blue chalk. Two little girls, under age 5, approach. They sit on a bench, a respectful distance from the guy taking pictures, but they are inquisitive. The older of the two asks what happened. She’s told there was a fire. The younger of the two, barely able to form the words, keeps asking when the family that lived there “will come home.”

Tarshrikia Beasley, 43, and her 5-year-old son, Elijah Brown, won’t be. They died in the fire in the early hours of June 7, Beasley’s birthday. Fire officials said Monday they their initial findings are that the fire was accidental. They are awaiting the outcome of insurance investigators’ reviews before issuing a final determination.

But the fire has jump-started a longstanding philosophical battle between the City Council and the city administration on how often to inspect rental properties in the city.

On the hot seat this time, and complicating the debate, is the Lansing Housing Commission. The independent body, appointed by the mayor, oversees the administration of millions of dollars of federal, state and local housing dollars.

LHC officials had been blocking city code compliance inspectors from getting into the 800-plus properties in the city to inspect them, Mayor Andy Schor said at a press conference Monday. The commission argues that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development did inspections and that was all that was required.

Schor said that ended when he took office in January. A legal opinion from the city attorney backed up the city’s position that the commission was subject to the same inspections as any other landlord.

“We met with them on Tuesday, before this fire,” Schor said. “We made plans to start inspecting all their properties. That has, obviously, been accelerated.”

The last HUD inspection, from September 2017, only sampled units at the complex, not all units, according to the inspection report released by the city Monday.

That report shows HUD officials inspect 24 of 213 units — just over 11 percent of all the units. Based on that inspection, HUD found 14 health and safety violations. The federal agency inspectors estimated that if all 213 units had been inspected, there would have been 112 such violations.

An inspection by Lansing Code Compliance officials in April 2016 found much more extensive issues, including at the unit involved in the fatal fire. The city cited the commission for improper installation and inspection of furnaces, electrical outlet issues and, in one instance, human urine and feces being stored in a bedroom. The commission had until May 2016 to file an affidavit that all the issues identified were fixed.

“At this time we have not been able to locate that affidavit,” said Brian McGrain, the city’s director of economic development and planning, which oversees code compliance officers. There is no evidence that city officials revisited the site or took any action to address the issues it had found.

“Clearly we dropped the ball here,” said McGrain. “We have to do better.”

He called the system of relying on those cited for violations to certify the repairs, without any reinspection, “an honor system.”

The chairman of the commission’s board said Monday it was never informed by the commission’s staff that the property had failed an insection.

“Clearly, we missed it,” Chairman Tony Baltimore said, referring to the board. “We would not necessarily know if any unit has failed.”

In fact, Baltimore said in an interview that he does not recall ever hearing about a failed inspection in his more than nine years on the board.

“We are going to make some changes” regarding communications to the board, he added.

McGrain and Schor acknowledged Monday that not all of the the commission’s 800-plus properties were likely to be properly registered and inspected, as required by city code.

“The Lansing Housing Commission is the city’s largest landlord,” said Schor. “We owe it to the residents to make sure things are safe.”

Schor and his team are working to marshal housing inspectors from their retirements and seeking assistance from neighboring communities as well. He’s set an aggressive deadline to have all of the properties owned by the Lansing Housing Commission inspected and properly registered in three months.

The city has two part-time and two fulltime premise inspectors. They may only inspect the outside of properties. Under the budget that goes into effect July 1, those two part-time posts will be made full time, and a fifth full-time premise inspector will be added to enforce code issues on the city’s business corridors.

Code compliance officers inspect interiors. The city has seven full-time code compliance officers, with two vacancies, but the 2018-’19 budget authorizes filling them.

Schor warned inspecting all of the commission’s properties will be expensive. “We are going to have pay overtime, we are going to have contracts,” he said. Councilman Adam Hussain represents the area where the fatal fire occurred. He expressed gratitude for the actions Schor announced Monday. He said he has been “screaming from the rafters” about the problems with the commission for years.

He is calling on commissioners Executive Director Martel Armstrong, who was appointed a year ago to resign immediately. He was joined in that sentiment by First Ward City Councilwoman Jody Washington and At-Large Councilwomen Carol Wood and Patricia Spitzley. Second Ward Councilman Jeremy Garza declined to comment, saying he did not have enough information. Other Council members were not immediately available for comment.

Schor, who has no way to remove commissioners or Armstrong under the city charter, has said he is reviewing the status of all involved. Wood said if she believes she has a majority on the Council who will support it, she will bring a resolution of no confidence against the commission’s management.

Baltimore said he did not plan to resign. “We’ve done some great work, but when failures do happen, this is not the time to cut and run.” He said he has ordered the commission to conduct an investigation. “I want to make sure it goes through and I want to find out the findings.”

But Baltimore indicated he would resign if the mayor asked him to. “I serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” he said.

Wood, Spitzley, Hussain and Washington agreed that the situation highlights a larger issue.

Former Councilwoman Jessica Yorko “was right when she was demanding more code compliance housing inspectors,” said Spitzley. “But there was just no interest in that with the previous administration.”

Schor spokeswoman Valerie Marchand said Tuesday that the city may have to make such a declaration, but it is waiting for “facts.”

“We will do accelerated inspections of our public housing and determine if we need to issue an emergency declaration,” she said. “We will make that decision based on the facts we have.”