One way the Fire Department raises rents in LA

Today, I want to talk about one of the unacknowledged factors driving up the cost of housing in LA: The fire code.

Now, it’s obvious why we need the Fire Department to weigh in on the design of new buildings. The department is going to have to rescue the inhabitants in the event of a fire and it obviously has a strong interest in keeping risk to the inhabitants and the fire-fighters to a minimum.

But there are obviously trade-offs. Here’s an example: Say you’re building a two story building with an open walkway serving the units on the second floor. Say further that you have one staircase and you’d like to avoid building another, because doing so would force you to lose a parking space, and therefore a unit.

The first code absolutely mandates that second staircase, because the fire code is concerned with minimizing injury and death in the event of a fire and having a second exit certainly does that.

But a rational person looking at that situation might say: The building is sprinklered and built of modern, fire retardant materials. Yes, we need a second exit. But we can live with a fire-escape instead of a full-scale staircase, because the chance that this actually ends up mattering is extremely low and the value to the city of an additional safe, legal apartment is high.

Let’s be clear: I’m not at all opposed to having the Fire Department have a say in development. I just think that we, as a city, need to have a full and frank discussion about the trade-offs involved.