Our research found that a structure fire is clearly associated with more reports of vacancies, repairs, and sales at that property. While these outcomes seem like clear results of fires, each is a different kind of story. Two particular row homes in Brewerytown illustrate the real-life example of what it means to have an “outcome”.
This first 2014 photo from depicts the two brick-red properties in good condition. These two houses are the same category of “row” building as 61% of properties in Philadelphia, and despite their older age, they’re popular due to their natural affordability.
FIRST TYPE OF OUTCOME
In August 2017, the light red building on the left had a fire in a room seemingly in their upper floor, which left the front windows bare. The bottom window is left boarded. In September 2018, the dark red building on the right had a larger fire that spread to both floors. According to 311 complaints and inspection records from the Licencing and Inspection Department, both these properties were recorded as vacant.
In the year following…
A year later, the google streetview camera happened to capture the clean-up of the right-side building. While most fire-stricken properties don’t receive vacancy complaints, they are six times more likely to experience them in the six months after a fire than similar properties that didn’t have a fire. The rate slows after six months, but vacancy reports are at least three times more likely for at least two years, and twice more likely until four years after the incident.
Vacancy reports are also more likely leading up to the incident. This matches with research associating vacancy with fire risk.
An example of how vacancy can "spread".
Panning to the right, there are two other vacant buildings, shown here. They’ve been in this state since at least 2014, according to Google Streetview. After the 2017 and 2018 fires, the first pair evidently sat vacant and unrepaired until 2020, creating four vacant houses in a row. It’s commonly understood that vacancy can spread on a block, or at least de-incentivize upkeep. Data for this study supported that hypothesis, showing that fire-related vacancies were more often reported in areas that had a high vacancy rate overall.
How can vacancies be avoided?
The biggest goal of residents after a fire is to get back into their homes, but it requires a lot of work and the right preparation. A senior case manager at Philadelphia’s Red Cross House told us that many renters are left without housing after a fire because they do not have renter insurance that would allow quick recovery. This is either due to lack of information or the expense of coverage for those with lower incomes. The other suggestion they had was to “never get a landlord that lives in New York.” If a landlord lives out of state, households commonly have a harder time moving back in due to lack of quick attention to repairs.
SECOND TYPE OF OUTCOME
In 2019, the bright red fire-stricken house and its neighbor were still vacant, as pictured here. In 2020, it was sold to a local developer for $80,000. According to the Philadelphia Dept. of Records’s property transfer dataset, it was financed through Jumpstart Philly LLC, a Philadelphia-based community development program with a mission to rehab blighted units and service small developers as they grow. This property seemed to fit this mission quite well.
There's not just one kind of investor.
The dark red house was also sold, this time in mid-2019 to a different local developer for just $20,000. However, this group only repaired the property to meet Dept. of Licensing & Inspection safety standards, according to the L&I’s permit dataset. This house’s 2018 fire was more severe, so it might’ve required more work. The local developer then sold the property again to a national-level investor Keystone Group, LLC. for $60,000. Other vacant properties on the street have seen the same pattern, including investment from Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.
Why Would Someone Sell?
These sales were examples of blighted home restoration after a long period of vacancy. We don’t know why the homes were left vacant for so long, but it may be because houses with more severe damage are harder to sell “as is”, and they did not have the resources or insurance to cover the property repairs. The Red Cross House senior case manager, whose clients are often those without such resources, explained that “the biggest issue we see is [owners] don’t have homeowner’s insurance.” This would leave owners looking to sell in a small pool of buyers who are looking for a large discount.
“The only situation where it’s truly more advantageous to sell,” a Houston real estate agent noted in an interview, is ”if the owner had fire insurance, which is giving them a substantial payout,” and a sale would recoup the remaining value of the home.
THIRD TYPE OF OUTCOME
If the resources are available soon after the incident, repairs can take anywhere from a couple days for minor fires to several months for major ones.
With these two houses finding investors at a cheap price, both groups went to work. This is an image of the bright red house, now dark gray, after a series of repairs in 2021. The L&I building permits dataset noted multiple major permit requests for this building, as well as the neighbor. The local developer sold the house that year for $255,000, over three times what they bought it for. Zillow’s public records note that it’s now a rental, charging $1,700 a month.
Repairs as a proxy for recovery
The dark red house next door also had many permit requests between 2021 and 2022. Pictured here, it’s now adorned with gray panels, new windows, and its two vacant neighbors to the right have been demolished. Keystone sold the property in 2022 for $275,000, over four times the purchase price.
Our study used repairs as a proxy for recovery, illustrated by the story of these two houses. The faster permits are requested and repairs are completed, the faster residents can achieve their biggest goal of moving back in. The original residents did not move back into these homes, though, so taking the likelihood of a sale into account when interpreting the likelihood of repair helps fully forecast a fire-stricken property’s future.
Repairs are needed in the most affordable homes.
Philadelphia’s housing stock is old, especially the naturally occurring affordable housing like the row homes in this story, and those present more risks to those with lower incomes. One Red Cross House senior case manager’s experience gives her the impression that “fires occur in places where they are waiting to happen”, where the same pattern of electrical and repair neglect can lead to the fires that put residents in vulnerable situations.