Desperate search for affordable housing could lead to disaster
The Park Record editorial, March 29-31, 2017
In a misguided effort to patch Park City’s affordable housing gap, a pair of property owners put more than two dozen lives at risk.
Throughout the winter, the owners of the former Colby School site on State Road 224 rented rooms to seasonal workers, disregarding county fire and building codes.
While the workers were probably grateful for a place to crash, they were likely unaware that the owners did not have permits to run a boarding house and the building did not have an adequate fire alarm system.
An observant neighbor who reported the situation earlier this month may have helped to avert a disaster. When the Park City Fire District inspected the premises, they found numerous violations of code requirements for multiple-occupancy facilities. Some of those included a lack of emergency exit lighting, smoke detectors that had not been installed and the absence of a commercial fire alarm panel designed to guide emergency responders to the source of a fire in a building with several living units.
Had the owners applied for the proper permits, building, fire and health officials would have conducted inspections to ensure the safety of any future tenants.
Those are the rules and they are in place for a reason.
Last winter’s devastating warehouse fire in Oakland, California is a dramatic example of what can go wrong when health and safety regulations are ignored. At the same time that workers in Park City were pulling shifts at the ski areas and bunking at the Colby School, a loose collective of artists was shacking up in an old warehouse in Oakland. Like their counterparts in Park City, they were shut out of a tight and expensive housing market and fell into what they probably believed was a lucky find — cheap housing in a vacant building offered by a landlord who was willing to dodge local ordinances.
On Dec. 2, the building caught fire and 36 people — including a young musician who grew up in Park City — were unable to escape. An investigation following the blaze revealed that Oakland officials may have been negligent in following up on numerous complaints about the living conditions at the warehouse.
In addition to the tragic loss of life, as well as the trauma to friends and family, the warehouse property owners and Oakland officials may yet be held liable for the incident.
The comparison may seem melodramatic but the parallels are clear.
The Colby School tenants were given a grace period to find alternate housing and will be moving out this weekend. And, in an effort to be proactive rather than punitive, the Park City Fire District worked with the property owners to fix the fire alarm system in the interim.
It is unclear whether the property owners will be fined for violating local ordinances, although they should be held accountable in some way for putting the employees and Summit County at risk.
Given the community’s ongoing affordable housing challenges, it is incumbent on city and county officials to not only find ways to support new employee housing projects but to strictly enforce local health and safety regulations to prevent misuse of existing spaces.
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