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Public Housing Often Fails to Meet Modern Fire Safety Standards

Public Housing Often Fails to Meet Modern Fire Safety Standards

Many older public housing apartment buildings, homeless shelters lack smoke detectors and fire sprinklers

In a previous post, we reviewed the recent tragic deaths of 6 people in a Las Vegas hotel that had been converted to an apartment building. In that post we noted that early reports suggested the building, which is privately owned, did not have an operating fire sprinkler system and that smoke detectors were either not present or had malfunctioned. In today’s post the fire accident injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm discusses the fact that many public housing units also lack these basic fire safety features, often leading to injury or death when fires break out in these housing units.

Fires strike Minneapolis apartment buildings

On November 27th  a fire broke out on the 14th floor of a Minneapolis Public Housing Authority high rise in the city’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, an area that is heavily populated by Somali refugees. The fire killed 5 people and injured 3. According to local sources the fire came just days before the building was to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The high-rise apartment building was constructed in the 1960s, before fire sprinklers were required to be installed. Smoke detectors were added later, but the only sprinkler coverage was present in the building’s first floor and basement.

At 3:00 a.m. on Christmas morning a fire broke out, and quickly consumed, Minneapolis’ Frances Drake Hotel. According to fire department officials, 3 people were transported to an area hospital with unknown injuries, 7 individuals were treated at the scene, and 200 more were displaced. At the time of the fire the Frances Drake Hotel was being utilized as an “overflow” homeless shelter when the nearby People Serving People shelter reached capacity. The status of the hotel’s fire sprinkler and smoke detection systems is unknown.

New York leads nation in number of fire deaths

According to the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), New York leads the nation in the number of fire-related deaths with 112 such deaths reported as of December 15th. The majority of the deaths have occurred in New York City, where older apartment buildings are often overcrowded and lack functioning smoke detector and fire sprinkler systems.


Practically all major cities and counties operate public housing authorities that, in turn, oversee public housing that serves low income families, the elderly, and even the homeless. Un fortunately, most such housing was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s when fire sprinkler and smoke detector systems were mandatory.  Thus, many residents living in older public housing units are a risk of injury or even death should a fire break out in such housing units.

Any private residential property owner is expected to maintain their property in such a condition that minimizes the possibility that a resident or visitor will suffer an injury while on the premises of that property. Should that owner become aware of a safety issue, yet fail to correct that issue, the owner could be held liable in a civil personal injury lawsuit and be ordered to pay damages. The law views public residential property (e.g. low income housing) in a different light.

Since public residential housing is usually owned and/or managed by an entity of a state or local government such as a “Housing Authority,” such entities enjoy protection from civil liability lawsuits under doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under this doctrine, a government or any of its agencies and departments, cannot be sued in civil court except in a narrow set of circumstances that are set forth in each state’s laws. Thus, and even though public housing authorities strive to maintain safe properties, a person injured by a fire in a public housing unit may have little legal recourse through a state civil  court. However, victims of a fire in public housing should discuss their injuries with an experienced personal injury lawyer to discuss the options that may be available.

At The Doan Law Firm, we will continue to monitor the local and national news media for further developments in the accidents mentioned in this post and will provide updates as they become available.

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