Fire safety still an important issue in choosing off-campus housing

An off-campus student house recently destroyed in a fire is pictured on April 3. Jiaxun Li / The Tufts Daily

Tufts students who decide to live off campus after their first two years of college have a lot on their plates when securing apartments. The list includes dealing with high rent prices, obeying local housing laws and finding apartments that meet proper fire safety regulations. Recently, the Medford and Somerville housing ordinances have banned more than three or four unrelated tenants, respectively, from living in single apartment units to prevent overcrowding and landlords raising rents for smaller shared living spaces. Both cities have placed new attention on overcrowding for renters by doing so, particularly in relation to fire safety.

The connection between overcrowded living conditions and student housing in Boston has become a matter of great concern, especially after the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published their investigation of a tragic fire in 2013, which ended in the death of a Boston University (BU) student due to both overcrowding and to an apartment that was not adhering to the fire code, according to an April 28, 2013 story.

On March 9 at Tufts, a fire displaced the 11 Tufts students living in the three-floor apartment at 300 Boston avenue. Tufts University Police Department (TUPD), the Medford Fire Department, Medford Police Department and the Armstrong Ambulance Service responded to the fire. According to Medford Fire Department Deputy Chief John Freedman, the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but the response was typical as for any fire.

“With a situation like this, we respond to the fire, and we do what’s necessary to extinguish it,” Freedman said. “The team is activated, called in and assembled. Basically they do the investigation, and we can’t release any information until they are done with the investigation.”

Fortunately, no Tufts students or firefighters were injured at the time of the fire. And the student residents of the house were offered housing by Tufts after the fire and have currently found places to live for the rest of the semester.

The fire had started on the third floor of the apartment building and threatened to spread to multiple floors. According to then-resident Jack Kamin, who was residing on the first floor at the time of the fire, it was easy for him to get out.

“I was lying in bed on the computer,” Kamin, a senior, said in an email to the Daily. “It was like [3 p.m.], and I had my door closed. I heard some loud voices outside and banging on the front door, and I kind of ignored it. Then I heard the door open and a man banged on my bedroom door and flung it open and yelled ‘Yo, the house is on fire!’ and I jumped out of bed and ran out.”

According to Freedman, the Medford Fire Department dispatched an ambulance, multiple engines and ladders to contain the working fire. While the numerous engines were covering the fire, the Malden Fire Department assisted by helping cover Medford’s jurisdiction in case another emergency occurred elsewhere.

Freedman believes that the 300 Boston Ave. fire was an isolated incident and is not connected with other off-campus housing fires. However, he reiterated that the investigation is still ongoing.

“I definitely don’t see a pattern. This is a single incident,” Freedman said. “It all depends on how the investigation goes. They put a team together, and they investigate. It goes as long as it takes. The fact if it takes any longer or shorter does not really give any insight.”

As for fire safety within the apartment prior to the fire, Kamin noted that although there were the proper exits, he still didn’t feel entirely comfortable within his apartment.

“I was able to get out fine because I was on the first floor,” Kamin said. “We lived there for two years and our landlord raised the rent on us for $100, but he didn’t do anything to fix the place up. I didn’t feel unsafe there, but the apartment was a mess.”

For many Tufts students who venture off campus, finding affordable apartments is a challenge. This is due in part to Tufts’ non-guarantee of housing for all four years and to some students going abroad for a semester or more. During the housing search, many students may not be aware of the various safety regulations that are in place to protect them.

According to Tufts Fire Marshall John Walsh, before students sign renters’ agreements and leases, they should consider the Tufts University Fire Safety Guide for Off-Campus Residence Selection, which is located on the Tufts Fire Safety website.

“Well-informed students (as renters) can use the guide to help them select the safest apartments or to call matters to the attention of the landlord with the goal of having safety issues corrected before the agreement is signed,” Walsh said in an email to the Daily. “The guide can also be used as a tool to assess apartments even if a Rental Agreement is already in force; however, the renter would likely be in a disadvantaged position when trying to negotiate with the landlord to advocate for safety improvements for an apartment that is already under contract.”

According to Walsh, overcrowding tends to be a high concern in apartments, not only to ensure the correct number of egresses per unit but also to prevent the use of too much electrical power within an apartment, which could threaten the balance of the existing power system.

“To begin with, [having] more people in an apartment create[s] additional demands on the electrical system,” Walsh wrote. “It is not unusual to find apartments that lack an adequate number of electrical outlets or lack the capacity to handle too many electrical demands simultaneously. If there is a three-bedroom apartment designed to handle the demands of three or four people and that space has actually become home to six or eight people, electrical current draw could overwhelm the intended design. Imagine multiple window air conditioners running simultaneously and then a blow dryer in one bedroom and the electric stove in the kitchen. This scenario could easily result in excessive electrical current draw that causes the wires to overheat (inside the wall — out of sight of the tenants) that could ignite.”

Many of these regulations are outlined in Tufts’ guide for students looking for off-campus housing. The guide lists several things to look out for during negotiations with potential landlords. It also calls on students to understand the policies of the landlord, features of buildings and how to navigate a relationship with any existing tenants of the building, as their behavior also effects safety within that apartment.

The search for affordable and adequate housing can be difficult; however, according to Mark Blotner (LA ’87), owner of Kinross Real Estate Development, there are ways to ensure that student renters obtain the most reliable information in finding good landlords and safe apartments.

“I know that around some schools they encourage to go around the broker, but personally I think that’s a mistake,” Blotner said. “They are where the wealth of information is and even though the rental broker may seem expensive, in the long run they might be able to get you a better apartment or cheaper one. And they will be able to tell you about the landlord, the neighborhood, whether the guy keeps up his property or doesn’t. They are usually a pretty good resource.”

Although Tufts doesn’t yet have an off-campus housing department to help students find places to live in the surrounding neighborhoods, Blotner commented that this would be the first place students should go during their search.

“Boston College has a place called ‘Off-Campus Housing.’ They are a great resource for kids because they help screen who the good landlords are and who the bad landlords are,” Blotner said. “BU doesn’t have one. So I would recommend that if there is an off-campus housing department, that would be the first place I would start. And then you can go online now and there are sites that you can look up landlord reviews, but you have to be careful with that.”

Ensuring safe off-campus housing choices is important for many Tufts students, but unfortunately, knowledge about issues like safety concerns and absentee landlords is often gained too late, usually after the contracts have already been signed. Nonetheless, according to Walsh, the best cautionary measure is to inform tenants prior to signing about fire safety matters in order to ensure they make the right choices prior and during their lease.

“The best defense is to take a few minutes to be informed about fire and life safety matters,” Walsh wrote. “Be sure to be aware of your surroundings and have a plan on how to escape from any and all environments. Be aware of the life safety features of your home (including on or off campus and any environment you will sleep in), making sure that working smoke alarms are always protecting you.”

Walsh also pointed again to the guide for students concerned about their living situations.

“Additionally, each person is likely to have many other people in your lives who are also invested in your success through that vision and mission in some manner,” Walsh wrote. “Fires and other threats can suddenly interrupt your life; causing injuries (or worse), property loss and other forms of major setback to your personal mission. However, a logical plan and basic self-discipline in safety matters can significantly improve your chances to avoid or minimize the negative impact of a fire … Don’t let a fire (especially an avoidable fire) set back your personal mission.”