Four years after a fire in an illegal Quincy apartment killed a father and his two sons, legislators are pushing to strengthen penalties under the state building codes.
The proposed legislation, the subject of a public hearing at the State House last week, would increase the fine for a landlord renting a dangerous or illegal apartment to as much as $15,000 or 2½ years in jail. A second offense could result in a fine of up to $35,000 or up to five years in state prison.
Current penalties for renting out illegal apartments are a maximum of $300 for each day of the violation.
“We worked very closely with Fire Marshal Stephen Coan’s office to draft something that is tight and enforceable,” Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said in a press release. “And Senator James Timilty was immediately supportive when we asked him to sponsor it.”
At the hearing, legislators showed photos of the home on Robertson Street in Quincy that was gutted by a fire in 2009, taking the lives of Oudah Frawi, 39, and his sons, 1-year-old Frawi and 2-month-old Hassan.
Started by a lamp, the fire made the basement apartment with small windows and one exit a death trap, Morrissey said, with evidence showing the father died trying to carry his sons through the heat and flames. Frawi’s wife, the mother of the children, was the only survivor.
The building had various building-code violations and had exceeded its occupancy limit of four families, instead housing six, said David Traub, spokesman for the district attorney.
“When you take illegal apartments to their unfortunate conclusion . . . this is what can happen,” Traub said.
Two brothers who owned the building, Andy and Jason Huang, were convicted of manslaughter in 2012, and work has continued since to toughen penalties for illegal apartments.
“Manslaughter convictions did not bring those children or their father back,” Morrissey said. “It was important to secure convictions for those crimes, but it is equally important that we move to prevent this from happening again if we can.”
The bill has the support of almost a dozen legislators, including state Senator John F. Keenan and state Representative Bruce J. Ayers, both Quincy Democrats. Filed early this year, the bill needs approval by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security before moving on for further review.
“This unfortunate incident occurred within my legislative district and only emphasizes the need for stronger laws to strengthen the penalties for landlords who put others at risk by renting out illegal, hazardous apartments,” Ayers said in an e-mail. “I fully support this bill and will be working with DA Morrissey and my colleagues in the House of Representatives and state Senate for its passage.”
The legislation would not only increase the penalties, but also streamline how the state prosecutes stubborn landlords.
Currently, building violations are addressed at the local level. If landlords do not correct the violations, an enforcement officer can apply for a municipal code violation complaint in district court. But the district court must use each municipal code’s rules to find fault.
“What might sustain a violation in Braintree or Weymouth might be insufficient in Milton or Quincy, or the other way around,” Morrissey said. “Creating a section in the General Laws with clearly defined elements, fixed definitions, and statewide application will provide a tool that can be used effectively to safeguard the public.”
Quincy District Court sees about 12 cases a year related to illegal apartments, but may see more under the changes proposed in the current bill, Traub said.
This would include such problems as building-code violations, buildings that exceed or do not have occupancy permits, houses that have blocked access for entry and egress, and homes that lack adequate fire-suppression or fire-warning systems.
Traub added that illegal apartment violations would become a separate category, rather than coming under the umbrella of municipal ordinance violations. Currently, that category includes such offenses as leaf blowing during proscribed hours.
Quincy building inspector Jay Duca said the law is at its weakest in treating illegal apartments, and he said he is pleased to see the state take a leadership role on the issue.
“We need new legislation with more consistent guidelines,” Duca said. “Every community is using their own technique in how they deal with these. You really need to have the state have something consistent and something we can all follow.”
Duca said he hopes legislators will eventually allow municipalities to put liens on buildings to help collect the fines.