After 12 People Died in a Fire in Philadelphia Public Housing, Expert Says It Could Happen Anywhere

Many U.S. cities are facing hefty bills if they want to fix their aging public housing. Meanwhile, the need for homes outweighs supply, and some units can become crowded — which can be deadly.

A 12-victim fire at a packed public housing building in Philadelphia shows the nation needs more new units of public housing — and improved safety features in the units we have now, says a local anti-poverty advocate.

“People are not able to afford housing,” said Stephanie Sena, of the Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, said on LX News Now. “More and more people who are in need of affordable housing are cramming into houses where they don't have fire exits or fire alarms that are working. This was preventable.”

The fire swept through the home early Wednesday morning and may have been sparked by a child playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree, according to NBC10 Philadelphia.

In the days following the tragedy, neighbors and leaders have sounded off locally and nationwide about the limited exits from the building and whether it should have been outfitted with a fire escape or sprinklers.

But adding features and upgrades to homes comes at a cost that many agencies can’t pay.

In its 2021 fiscal report, the Philadelphia Housing Authority said it has a backlog of needed repairs that would cost over $1 billion to fix. That’s more than 18 times the $53 million in capital the agency had last year.

Many other cities’ public housing authorities are also facing down a hefty repair bill. Nationwide, the price tag to make all needed repairs to public housing could be as high as $70 billion, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

And every major metro area in the country has a shortage of homes for extremely low-income renters, the report found. On top of all that, people seeking public housing could have to wait about 10 years before they can move in.

“It is an example of a large-scale problem,” Sena said. “Over half of the United States’ housing agencies have waitlists that are closed. The wait for housing is approximately 11 years, so in the meantime, people are becoming homeless.”

In Philadelphia, the waitlist for public housing closed in 2013.

“We have had the alarm bell rung before. We know that this is a problem. We know that these houses are not kept up with,” Sena said.