Safe Buildings and City Regulations

The City of Houston makes building owners jump through outrageous hoops to obtain permission to occupy and use their property. Ostensibly, these regulations are intended to ensure the safety of those use the building. But as a recent audit of the Life Safety Bureau of the Houston Fire Department discovered, those regulations are nothing more than a sham.

As an example, in the past two years 526 of Houston’s 5,000 apartment buildings have been inspected. The department’s goal is 470 per month. In other words, it took almost two years for the bureau to meet the goal for a single month.

Unless I have missed something, Houston has not been plagued by a rash of apartment fires. Apparently, Houston’s buildings are safe whether the city inspects them or not. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Building owners have a vested interest in keeping their properties safe. Further, insurance companies also have an interest in ensuring that buildings meet certain standards.

Indeed, when I owned a four-plex my insurance company inspected the property more frequently than the city did. The insurance company had money on the line–if something happened they were the ones who would pay.

The Life Safety Bureau isn’t even close to following its own rules, but if a building owner breaks the rules, he faces fines or worse. Adding to the injustice is the fact that the bureau went over budget by $2.4 million in 2015 and 2016. Apparently, taxpayers have been paying inspectors to not inspect.

Predictably, Fire Chief Samuel Peña has promised reforms. Presumably, those reforms will include actually inspecting buildings.

With the city facing a budget deficit, now is the time to abolish the Life Safety Bureau. Even better would be repealing the city’s building codes and firing the army of inspectors who do little more than hassle property owners and help the city collect fees. As the audit and history shows, we don’t need government officials to keep us safe.

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