Dueling Crises: Unaffordable Housing vs. Flammable Housing

by James A. Bacon

Citing housing affordability as the key issue, the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development has voted down an update to the state building code that would have mandated the installation of sprinklers in all new single-family homes and townhouses.

Virginia home builders have said that the sprinkler requirement would add between $15,000 and $25,000 to the construction cost of a new residence, according to reporting by WAMU, American University Radio. Keith Brower, a former Loudoun County fire chief has countered that the cost would be significantly less, about $5,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house. Whatever the case, there is no debate that the mandate would have added thousands of dollars to the cost of a dwelling unit.

WAMU summarized the home builders’ arguments this way:

Home-builders hailed the 10-4 vote taken Monday, saying that requiring sprinklers would only throw another obstacle in the way of the new housing construction that is needed to help close what officials say is a 75,000-home gap between what’s currently expected to be built across the region and what’s actually needed to keep pace with estimated job growth.

“We’re seeing that in Northern Virginia, we’re seeing it across the state that localities are really struggling to find ways to create to create mixed-income communities, to provide housing for folks at all income levels,” says Andrew Clark, the vice-president of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Virginia. “And keep in mind that code proposals can have an impact on affordable housing and the ability to provide a diversity of housing stock in our communities.”

Housing affordability is a social crisis, especially in Northern Virginia. Affordable housing is not a concern of Virginia fire fighters — fighting fires is. But Brower’s concerns cannot be dismissed lightly:

“We used to say you have 10 to 13 minutes to get out of your house, and that was because you had a lot of natural fabrics in your furnishings. Over the last 15 or 20 years, everything is now synthetic. Everything in your home is now a highly volatile, combustible product. What we’re finding now is that fire spread has increased so rapidly that people only have two to three minutes to get out,” he says. “The sprinklers are designed to give people time to get out.”

So, we have a battle of dueling crises — unaffordable housing vs. flammable housing. Which is of a greater magnitude when it comes to public health and welfare, and which consideration should prevail?

Here is the number of fires, injuries and fatalities in Virginia:

Last year there were 61 fire-related fatalities, 404 fire-related injuries, and $250 million of fire-related property damages in Virginia. With random blips up and down each year, the numbers have been fairly stable since 2013.

That gives us an idea of the magnitude of the threat posed by house fires. What it doesn’t tell us is what impact the mandatory installation of sprinklers will have on the numbers. Given the fact that changes to the building code would not mandate retrofits to the existing housing stock, however, the answer is probably Not Much. It will take years and decades to see the benefits of mandatory sprinklers as new housing stock replaces new housing stock.

By contrast, insofar as the price of newly built housing sets a benchmark for the price of existing housing, changes to the building code have an ripple effect across the entire housing stock, immediately impacting everyone seeking to rent or buy a new house.

Higher rents and mortgages diminish income that households can spend on other priorities — such as health and safety. Households will spend some percentage of their income on safer cars, better health care or, who knows, voluntarily installing sprinklers.

It’s hard to measure the effect, however, so let’s focus on the most vulnerable population, the homeless. As of 2018, the homeless population of Virginia numbered 5,975, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Many people are homeless due to alcohol and drug addiction, so their plight may seem only tangentially related to the cost of housing. But the estimated 660 homeless families are a different matter; most are homeless because they have been effectively priced out of the market housing and evicted because of an inability to pay rent. As housing prices continue to rise, so will the number of homeless families.

The question then becomes, what are the health and safety effects of homelessness? “Research … indicates that individuals experiencing homelessness have a risk of mortality that is 1.5 to 11.5 times greater than the risk in the general population,” states a 2017 paper by the American Public Health Association. Clearly, there is a relationship.

The data I present here is spotty and inconclusive, but, hopefully, I have illuminated a useful way of examining the public health and safety trade-offs between making housing more affordable and making it more safe. I strongly incline toward a conclusion that the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development made the right decision, but I’m open to seeing more data and other ways of analyzing the issue.

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15 responses to “Dueling Crises: Unaffordable Housing vs. Flammable Housing

  1. Going down rabbit-holes here aren’t we? The homeless suffer primarily from a lack of money and most would never qualify for a mortgage. Most can’t afford to pay the deposit on a rental house much less afford to buy one!

    I just think citing them as being hurt by potential sprinkler mandates borders on the bizarre!

    For people who CAN qualify for a mortgage on a home – I’d be curious to know if the insurance for homes with sprinklers is lower – and is it low enough that over the years – the insurance savings pay for the sprinklers.

    • Larry, your logic is bizarre. You and only you could deny the obvious linkages between the rising cost housing, rising rents, increasing evictions, and increasing homelessness.

      • homeless folks don’t buy homes… Jim – and on a percentage basis – the homeless are a tiny percentage compared to the numbers who actually do buy homes…

        you say rents, evictions… most multi-family structures already require sprinklers, no?

        you’re right about the logic being bizarre – but it’s on you guy. THIS logic is nutty!

        homeless folks don’t buy homes… and typically don’t qualify for mortgages anyhow – even for the lowest cost homes for sale!

  2. Making a regulatory decision based on an analysis of costs-benefits? Holy S(%.

    Much of our homeless problem started when public decision makers decided that most mentally ill people should not be in institutions. Go to San Francisco. Observe the homeless. I did every day for a week when we left the hotel. Most of these people are not just down on their luck. This is not an economic problem.

    • SOME are mentally ill , others are not classifiable as Mentally Ill but they simply do not fit in with society…. many lack a decent education, others simply don’t understand that workers need to be reliable and show up at work every day – on time – no excuses, pay their debts and bills, build a credit rating that qualifies them to be able to get a loan or pay a deposit on an apartment , etc. Others are alcoholics or have drug issues or have emotional or intellectual issues…

      They’re just not a group that typically have the resources or capabilities to even rent a place unless it is govt subsidized or a group home, etc.

      The most important thing most homeless need FIRST is employment – an employer that is willing to work with them on work issues. Goodwill is an employer who does that – there are others but most normal employers – like a WalMart or a McDonalds or Dollar General is not going to hire most homeless folks unless they have a work history, characteristics that employers want to assure that the workers is reliable, trustworthy, conscientious, etc. Many homeless are not any of those things.. they have multiple issues.

      • Like I said, there are two categories of homeless people. Homeless individuals with substance addiction or mental illness (or severe anti-social attitudes in your interpretation), and families. Different sets of people, different causes of homelessness.

      • And given that human beings have free will, those without mental illness have to live with their decisions. If you make bad decisions over and over again, your chances for a good life are nil.

        When my son was in kindergarten, he wanted to play rather than work with me on his reading. Pretty normal behavior. He said he didn’t need to read and wanted to play. I told him that, if he didn’t learn how to read, the only job he’d get is cleaning porto-potties. He stopped dead in his tracks and sat down and grabbed the book.

        Obviously, only an interesting anecdote. But it still instructs that throughout life, we make decisions that effect our future. We spend billions providing extra services for children from poor homes and from houses where English isn’t spoken as the main language. Many of these kids and their parents chose to take advantage of them. But others don’t. People have a moral obligation to use what services are available to them.

        Still kudos for those who made a decision not to require sprinklers in new construction.

  3. re: ” It’s hard to measure the effect, however, so let’s focus on the most vulnerable population, the homeless. As of 2018, the homeless population of Virginia numbered 5,975, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Many people are homeless due to alcohol and drug addiction, so their plight may seem only tangentially related to the cost of housing. But the estimated 660 homeless families are a different matter; most are homeless because they have been effectively priced out of the market housing and evicted because of an inability to pay rent. As housing prices continue to rise, so will the number of homeless families.”

    nope. the homeless are not “priced out” guy – they lack the resources even for the lowest cost basic housing because they lack jobs and are unemployable for the most part.

    It’s not like they work but don’t earn enough for housing.

    You’ve just conflated things.. and attempted to use “logic”to make a claim that simply is not backed up by data… nor the facts… Most homeless people cannot even afford the deposit and most do not have a steady job that the landlord would expect if he/she was going to rent to them.

    You cannot equate low-income workers with folks who are homeless and have no income and cannot get employment because of a number of factors – not the least of which is the chaotic nature of their lives where they cannot show a job history or references from employers. It’s just way different than folks who work – have work histories, etc, but simply do not earn enough money for the region they live in.

    they’re just totally different groups.

  4. yes, the highest rates of homelessness are in cities with high cost housing but the correlation is not what you’re claiming. They are different issues for the most part. Homeless people are attracted to cities because they have access to things they would not have access to in rural areas – public spaces for one. In rural areas, you’re on someone’s land and there is no food pantry nearby, etc.

    You’re using “logic” on something that you really do not understand the basic facts of… sorry… but that’s an increasing issue now days where people “see” a “correlation” with the uber data that is now available on the internet, then proceed to draw connections where there are none or it’s more complex than simplistic logic. And yes, there are some groups who claim to represent some point of view who really just confuse the issues… to promote their viewpoint.

    I say again : “affordable housing” has nothing to do with homelessness.. it’s a bogus issue .. and yes.. there are some groups who make the claim but if you ask most people who are directly involved with the homeless – they’ll laugh at the claim…

    Go talk to some groups that deal with the homeless, Jim… I’m just flummoxed that you come up with some of these correlations.

  5. Once again, jimbo opines about things he does not understand

  6. Let’s separate homing the homeless from the broader issue of affordable (workforce) housing. No firefighter would ever turn down a sprinkler system as a helpful tool. But there are issues with these–not only the cost at purchase (can anyone do the math on $5000 over a 30-year mortgage @ 4.5%?), bu they require maintenance and they fail, causing expensive water damage. If VBHCD wants to regulate fire suppression, I suggest that they require thicker drywall. Every builder has to install drywall, already, so the cost becomes incremental to builders, rather than requiring an additional engineered system with additional plumbing. Adjustments to building plans not too hard, and thicker drywall goes a really long way to buy time for exit in fire.
    I live in a multifamily housing with fire sprinkler system that has cost our HOA and individual owners hundreds of thousands $ over time. I have no assurance that the system will actually work when needed, as there is no way to test. But sprinkler heads get inspected and replaced on a schedule, but that’s only what is external.

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