Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Fire Inspector pleads couch ban's case

9. December 2004 • Murph
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Ann Arbor Fire Inspector Doug Warsinski presented to MSA and other interested students on Tuesday night, trying to convince them of the need for a ban on outdoor couches. Also in attendance were 3rd Ward Councilmember Leigh Greden, Old Fourth Ward President Chris Crockett, and three representatives of landlord companies.

Three major arguments were presented by the Fire Inspector,

  1. Outdoor areas lack fire detection and suppression measures common inside houses or apartment buildings, such as sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, or limited air flow, allowing fires in outdoor couches to go longer and become more severe before being detected, giving building occupants less time to escape.
  2. Insurance companies are considering rate hikes for rental property coverage, because the number of burnt couches in Ann Arbor makes the city a high-risk area. Greden noted, “If the insurance companies pull coverage, you can forget about any kind of affordable housing in the area!”
  3. A city ordinance banning couches would be cheaper and easier than education of students on risk or renovation of structures to reduce fire danger, and would reduce the risk to insurance companies.

Students were given only around 10 minutes to respond or ask questions after the Inspector’s presentation, and I at least was dissatisfied with the results. My own question about why an ordinance was necessary – why landlords couldn’t just include a ban on couches in their leases – was not satisfactorily answered. One landlord dismissively noted that, “It is banned in my leases, but students don’t pay attention to it,” and I was not given a chance to ask why contracts would be harder to enforce than an ordinance.

A question (by fellow AU writer Matt Hollerbach?) on whether insurance premiums were valid backing for making a public safety case against couches was fielded by Crockett, who stated that insurance rates are based on risk estimates, including liability for resident deaths.

The Ann Arbor News’ article on the forum attempts to teach me that I shouldn’t make any statement that can be poorly hacked in half to make less sense.

  1. Murph,
    I can tell you for certain that insurance is NOT an issue in this situation. As one of the larger property management companies in town that does a fair amount of student housing, I know that we have not been contacted by our insurer about increasing fire risks on our student properties and how it might increase without a ‘couch ban’ ordinance. The company I work for DOES have a clause in our lease that forbids the placement of interior furniture on porches, but that’s in place largely to protect the furniture that we own from being destroyed by the elements. It has nothing to do with safety issues. Also, we made a direct inquiry to our insurer about that clause and they said it has no effect whatsoever on our rates and they would not require it in our leases or anyone else’s.

    Most of our insurance is done through a local agency (Aprill) and the carrier is Hastings. Hastings, in fact, is the ONLY insurance company that will do broad-based, multi-property policies in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor is the ONLY student city/town in Michigan that has that luxury. Hastings originally did so in the 60s on the assumption that U of M students would be more ‘responsible’ than others. I’m not sure what the foundation for that reasoning was. ;)

    In any case, insurance can’t be used as leverage here until you hear it directly from Hastings or another, smaller carrier. If Greden feeds it to you, he’s doing nothing but stroking the Old 4th Ward harpies.
       —Marc R.    Dec. 9 '04 - 11:04PM    #
  2. Hastings sounds like the company they were talking about (they were saying there are only two insurers serving the whole A2 rental market?)—Warsinski, Greden, and at least one of the landlords seemed to think that the insurer was just about to yank coverage and that there was a desperate need to pass the ordinance to sooth the insurers.

    Do you have a contact at Hastings one of us could talk to about this? You could e-mail me a phone number…
       —Murph    Dec. 10 '04 - 12:28AM    #
  3. Did it even come up at the forum that aesthetics is a major reason, perhaps THE major reason, behind this push and that the fire code talk is perhaps a facade? Greden and his neighborhood associations chorus are not suddenly concerned about fire safety. They think porch couches are ugly and want to legislate taste. Maybe they should try telling students the truth.
       —Matt    Dec. 10 '04 - 04:48PM    #
  4. Well, it’s not totally the case that a fire hazard is not a concern of the neighbors—when Stevens Co-op burned down this summer, the houses on either side of it had a lot of fire damage.

    It is true that aesthetics are a bad motivation for such a ban (though note that the OFW is a historic district, so there are already extensive aesthetic regulations in that neighborhood), but since they have made such a huge safety case, the safety questions have to be answered on their own merits, rather than dismissed by saying, “Oh, they’re just concerned about appearances!”
       —Murph    Dec. 10 '04 - 05:23PM    #
  5. Yeah, aesthetics were definitely a reason they listed, although the fireman did not mention them. One of the 3 bulletpoints he listed in his slide was “community improvement” or something of that nature, and when I inquired he just said that his superior put it in there, and wasn’t really sure why. Granted, he was just providing information on the fire safety aspect of couches, but I still thought it was very telling.
       —Mcfo    Dec. 12 '04 - 04:47AM    #
  6. Yes, that was interesting. “I don’t wear the brains in this organization; I’m just a mouthpiece!”

    I found it similarly interesting that Chris Crockett’s answer to MWH’s insurance question quickly diverged from a reasonable explanation to a long-winded emotional plea to think of how much our parents would miss us if we died in a couch-related fire.

    And, third, when the Fire Inspector asked for a show of hands asking how many of the attendees were smokers, and got something like 15-20% response, one of the landlords turned to Greden and muttered, “Oh, that’s not true! It’s much more than that…”

    It’s the little things that made the presentation fun.
       —Murph    Dec. 12 '04 - 03:08PM    #
  7. Don’t play the game on their turf. The fire argument is a smokescreen, as we all know. If you get bogged down rebutting the fire thesis, you end up losing because they will say, “well if it prevents one fire then isn’t a ban worth it.” But if the city really cared, as many have mentioned before, they would enforce code standards and not just couches. It is on the agenda for aesthetic/snob zoning reasons, and that is the main reason and Greden and Crockett and the rest should have to be called out and make an honest argument.
       —Matt    Dec. 12 '04 - 04:28PM    #
  8. Matt, “if you get bogged down”? Where are you in all this?

    Even if the aesthetics fight is won, and they end up with egg on their faces for that, failing to argue the fire hazard fight will amount to tacit agreement, and somebody will push for the ordinance on those grounds.

    At any rate, though, this particular fight is rapidly descending in my list of personal priorities.
       —Murph    Dec. 12 '04 - 06:33PM    #