Inspections of 13 rental houses near the University of Kentucky found "significant life safety issues" and fire code violations at seven of them, Mayor Jim Newberry announced Friday.
Reviews of the houses, which have been converted from single-family residences into dorm-style housing that often holds 10 or more occupants, were conducted over the past two weeks by the city's Division of Fire and Emergency Service.
The findings add a new urgency to the debate over how the city, landlords and university can address the thorny issues of parking, noise and safety that often accompany the spread of group living quarters in neighborhoods near campus.
"It leads us to believe some further enforcement is warranted and significant education is needed," Newberry said during a hastily called meeting of various city officials and stakeholders, such as neighborhood groups, home builders and landlords.
Newberry said that this type of off-campus student housing — usually 1930s and '40s single family homes that have been doubled in size with large, vinyl-clad additions — isn't inspected regularly like apartment complexes.
As a result, fire safety officials found "a much greater incidence of life safety issues than in apartments," Newberry said.
Fire Marshal James Branham said inspectors contacted 45 homes and were invited into 13 of them. Most were in the Waller Avenue, Transylvania Park and Ayelsford Place neighborhoods. About half had serious violations, such as no alternate escape routes from bedrooms, smoke detectors missing from bedrooms and locks on the outside of bedroom doors, according to the inspection reports.
Branham said at a news conference later Friday he considers any house with limited access and no smoke alarms to be a "death trap."
Robert T. Hodskins, a Tennessee-based businessman who owns five of the properties inspected, said he wasn't aware of the safety reviews. Two of his properties on University Avenue showed no violations, while two others raised minor issues, according to the reports.
But the report on Hodskins' property at 136 Waller Ave. — a two-story house that was converted into a six-bedroom apartment with a five-bedroom addition on the rear — revealed several violations. In addition to fire alarms not being interconnected, inspectors said it needed a sprinkler near the furnace and an electric panel cover, one bedroom "appears too small" and might have been a converted closet, and a 50-foot extension cord runs from a second-story window to an outdoor plug.
Hodskins said he has invested a half-million dollars in upgrades to the 25 rental homes he owns in Lexington to comply with three previous inspections in seven years.
"Anybody who thinks they're dangerous or not safe is trying to make things up," Hodskins said.
During the previous inspections, Hodskins said an inspector told him: "We don't need to be doing that. We get a new mayor in and a new council in and this is a hot area."
At the early Friday meeting, Newberry asked the group to make suggestions about how to encourage student tenants, landlords and neighbors to contact fire inspectors if they know of potential hazards at other homes.
Newberry acknowledged to the group that the city will have to take other steps in the long term to better enforce existing safety codes and to curb the explosion of "vinyl box" additions in residential zones near UK.
He floated several ideas: tweaking the permit application process for building additions, increasing code enforcement scrutiny, and establishing a "kind-of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" listing for off-campus houses that comply with all safety and building codes.
But at least one council member said more must be done immediately.
Councilwoman Diane Lawless is redrafting a proposed six-month to one-year moratorium on construction of additions that are bigger than 25 percent of the original house. She asked Newberry if he would support such a moratorium, which would give all the players — the city, UK, neighbors, landlords, home builders and students — a chance to design a long-term scheme to balance the market for student housing with the safety, aesthetics and living conditions of the current neighborhoods.
Newberry committed only to "look at the language."
In general, he said, imposing a moratorium would be "kind of like putting a patch on a very bad tire.
"That's going to come undone very quickly," he said.
Lawless responded that something must be done to slow the growth because every large addition completed "has a 30- to 40-year impact."
Todd Johnson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Lexington, said the group was withholding an official position on Lawless's proposed moratorium until reading the details. Still, he said, the association is opposed to any measures that "negatively impact" contractors.
Molly Davis, a resident of the Elizabeth Street neighborhood, which is undergoing a rapid transition to more student housing, echoed Lawless's concern.
She said further enforcement of safety codes is a good idea, but she said she believes Newberry's plan to encourage neighbors and student tenants to call in with tips about violations only scratches the surface.
"It is a temporary fix, in some respects, as is the moratorium," she said. "We should have this short-term stoppage of the housing that's being built and a long-term solution."