When five or more people who are unrelated are living together in one house, the house has to comply with state fire codes, said Emily Witty, public information officer for the fire marshal’s office. That may include a smoke detector in every bedroom or a certain number of ways to escape, she said.
“They can say no, but this is an opportunity to ensure their safety,” Witty said. “This is not punishment. Given what we know about the fatal fire and that there are potential similar structures in the area, we want to get on top of it before we answer another fatal call.”
As recently as the week prior to the fire, 10 people were living in the two-story home in the 1800 block of Simons Court, where the two-alarm fire began around 2:30 a.m. Thursday. Nine were living there when the fire started — two others were injured, three escaped without injury and one was at work.
Neither the identities of the three who died nor a cause or origin had been released by officials as of Tuesday afternoon.
The State Fire Marshal and Harford County Sheriff continued to work at the scene Friday to determine the cause and origin of the fatal fire in Edgewood, as well as whether the townhouse where nine people were living was an illegal boarding house.
Harford County has a “minimum livability code” governing minimum property maintenance standards and requirements for rental housing units, but it does not have regulations regarding how many people can be living in a single unit, falling back on the state’s fire code, County Executive Barry Glassman said.
“It gets a little tricky limiting the number of the folks in residential unit,” Glassman said Friday. “Families can be unrelated now these days and there are certain constitutional questions on limiting unrelated people living together.”
The county’s Housing and Community Development agency may step in and try to resolve landlord-tenant issues where it has jurisdiction over landlords participating in county programs, he said. The county will also investigate if there are complaints related to housing, planning and zoning, licensing and permits, or “if we think someone is doing something illegal,” Glassman said.
“We are mostly complaint-driven,” he said.
Because of Thursday’s fire, the county executive said various departments that deal with rental properties may take another look to ensure Harford is in line with standards across the state, “but probably not while the investigation is outstanding.”
Harford County Councilman Andre Johnson said Thursday rental units in the townhouse community where the blaze occurred are a “huge problem.”
“The fire and EMS guys said probably half the houses in the area here are not owner-occupied,” said Johnson, who arrived at the fire scene around 5:30 a.m. Thursday. “When they’re not occupied, and the owner lives out of state, or wherever, who really takes care of these properties, [who] makes sure smoke detectors are up to date?”
“The problem is one I vow to abate because this is my community here, we just need to fix the problem,” Johnson said.