Editorial: Deadly Fire Draws Attention to Housing Crunch



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The tragic death of a UC Berkeley student and her parents in a fire this week highlights the acute need for higher rental safety standards. Perhaps more importantly, Sunday's preventable blaze necessitates that the university and the city actively examine student housing, a situation that is becoming ever more urgent and bleak.

As the fire department investigation deepens, it has become increasingly clear that the wood-frame house did not measure up to basic safety standards. Surviving roommate Michelle Plesa, who escaped the fire by jumping from a second story window, called the house a "death trap" Tuesday and said it did not contain a smoke alarm.

Fire investigators have yet to find traces of smoke detectors, and Berkeley Fire Chief Reginald Garcia said at least one of the house's bedroom windows was sealed shut.

All this points to a cycle of negligence by all involved, from the house's landlord to an arcane fire department loophole that exempts single-family homes from regular inspection.

Currently, the Berkeley Fire Department does not inspect single-family houses on any regular basis. This week's fire proved, however, that any rented rooms should be inspected each year.

In Berkeley's tight rental market, neglect of safety precautions has become the norm rather than the exception. As students become desperate for housing, many will take what they can get - whether or not landlords meet basic safety needs.

The group of friends whose lives were turned upside down by the fire found themselves in an extreme version of this predicament. Until last week, Plesa said, they spent the summer cramped in a one-bedroom College Avenue apartment while searching for a place to live.

When a friend of Plesa's sister offered them a house, they jumped at the chance and, as Plesa said, the question of fire safety got lost in the chaos of moving.

Too often, students seeking housing forgo basic standards of living to rent a room near campus. And, as first-time renters, they may not think to check the batteries in their smoke detector or make sure their windows open - especially not as a condition of renting the apartment.

This week's deadly fire merely spotlights the emerging trend. Both the city and the university should use Sunday's tragedy as a signal to reexamine pervading protocol, policy and even attitudes toward maintaining minimally safe living environments for all of Berkeley's residents.

Unfortunately, the fire only provoked an immediate but typical reaction from UC Berkeley and city officials. Chancellor Robert Berdahl issued a statement within hours of the incident, and Garcia took the opportunity to mention that the fire department will provide free detectors to residents.

But those well-intentioned efforts do not address the heart of the problem - that the housing crunch is forcing students to lower their standards, sometimes to the point of allowing their rental accommodations endanger their lives.

The university and the city must address this core issue, not beat around the bush.

Finally, The Daily Californian editors would like to offer their most sincere condolences to the relatives of Azalea Jusay and her parents, Francisco and Florita. We also express our deepest sympathy to Azalea Jusay's younger brother, the sole survivor of a family of four, and to the four roommates who have lost a childhood friend in a heartbreaking yet preventable tragedy.

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