Tens of thousands living in Philadelphia-area complexes where inspectors had found smoke detector problems from 2014 to 2019.

An Action News investigation has found some low-income families are living in potentially dangerous housing, paid for by your tax dollars.

The findings are based on public housing inspection reports obtained by the Action News Investigative Team.

More than 100,000 people in our region, some of them elderly and disabled, live in public housing complexes where inspectors have found failed smoke detectors or other life-threatening conditions over the last five years.

Even more troubling: in 90% of those buildings, the legally-mandated follow-up inspections by the federal government were months, even years, behind schedule.

Action News Investigative Reporter Chad Pradelli walked the hallways of the Parkview-Fairhill Apartments in North Philadelphia and found missing smoke detectors, taped fire detectors and other potentially dangerous conditions.

The high-rise was among the lowest-scoring public housing complexes in the country in 2017 according to an exclusive five-year data analysis by the ABC Owned Television Stations.

"Constantly fire alarms going off, constantly fire trucks coming," said Duane Thomas, who lives in the apartment building.

HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, flagged 71 out of 78 complexes run by the Philadelphia Housing Authority for failed smoke detectors or other potentially life-threatening conditions like gas leaks, exposed electrical wires, or blocked fire escapes.

Akeiba Emerson fears for her safety and that of her children.

"It's just a sad, sad, sad, scary situation," Emerson said.

Yet, inexplicably, HUD was overdue on follow-up inspections in 50 of those buildings, including the Westpark Plaza. HUD gave it the lowest safety inspection score for public housing in Philadelphia during our analysis.

Emerson says that's a problem.

"When there was a small fire here the other day, the alarms never went off and me and other residents had to tell security that the alarms didn't go off," Emerson said.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority did not dispute our data analysis. Spokeswoman Nichole Tillman acknowledges there are issues and called it an old site.

But, Tillman added, "We cannot do it alone. At the end of the day, the resident has to take some responsibility. We have found that residents take smoke detectors down while they are cooking and they even remove batteries to use them for other devices."

She said safety is a priority for her agency, which does smoke detector inspections twice a year and spent $8.5 million on fire safety since 2014.

"If there are life-threatening issues at the site, PHA fixes them within 24 hours," said Emerson.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, echoes Tillman's assertion that residents need to do their part.

"There are a lot of things that need to be corrected and they aren't corrected overnight, but we are making significant progress," Carson said.

But Carson says local housing authorities are not free from culpability.

"We have issued warnings to all the PHAs and we have increased the inspection activity," Carson said.

Carson admits follow-up inspections by his department have been inadequate.

He knows more needs to be done, or lives are at risk.

"That's what has been concerning to me particularly as a medical professional," Carson said.

Across the country, more than 1 million Americans are living in federally-funded housing complexes where inspectors have found there were not enough working smoke detectors.

In thousands of those complexes, the problems showed up on inspection after inspection.

ABC Owned Television Stations obtained and analyzed records from every published federal government inspection of subsidized housing since 2014 and found more than 11,000 complexes nationwide cited for missing, broken or otherwise inadequate smoke alarms.

That's 41% of all complexes run by public housing authorities or private landlords who get subsidies from taxpayers across the country. Many are home to elderly and disabled residents.

The problem in some cities was worse. Half or more of the complexes in New York, Houston and Chicago had been cited for not making sure smoke detectors were in place and working. In the suburbs of Bayonne, Newark and Jersey City in New Jersey, it was two-thirds of properties.

At more than 4,000 low-income housing sites nationwide, the ABC stations' exclusive data analysis reveals inspectors found smoke alarm problems on more than one inspection from 2014 through 2019.

The data analysis also found:

  • At three of every four public housing complexes where inspectors discovered smoke detector problems, the inspectors also reported other dangers they considered "life-threatening" such as electrical hazards and blocked fire exits. At more than 8,000 facilities, life-threatening dangers showed up on multiple inspections.
  • Despite knowing about smoke alarms and other safety problems, government inspectors returned to inspect properties months or even years behind schedule. About 90% of complexes with smoke alarm problems were inspected late, based on HUD's rules.
  • Among the public housing facilities cited for smoke alarm problems were more than 2,800 complexes serving the elderly and 775 more serving disabled residents.

HUD inspectors score a housing complex on a range of factors, including health and fire safety measures. They take special note of whether smoke detectors are present, and if they work.

Their score determines a target date for the next inspection, which ranges from one to three years.

Since 2014, more than 40% of complexes nationwide failed that smoke detector test. Thousands failed multiple inspections.

Our investigation found more than 75% of all inspections were overdue based on HUD's own guidelines.

And among those complexes where inspectors found smoke detector problems, 90% also had overdue inspections.

The federal government posts all of its inspection scores and some details about deficiencies - such as smoke detector problems - on HUD's public website and updates the records regularly. The most recently published data listing the inspection scores, which ABC reviewed, is current through 2019 for the vast majority of properties. In some states, the latest inspections published for public housing authorities were in 2018.

The investigation did not find problems with the smoke alarms or their manufacturers. Many of those companies work year in and out with fire departments and volunteer groups to give away detectors to anyone who needs them.

Rather, the investigation focused on the federal government's failure to make sure owners - whether they are public housing authorities or private landlords who receive federal subsidies - ensure their properties meet federal safety standards. That includes making sure smoke alarms are in place and working.

The federal rules say owners must install detectors in every home or apartment and check back regularly to make sure they work. That includes replacing batteries, which the rules say is among the owners' responsibilities. Owners also must set rules forbidding tenants from disabling smoke alarms.

Owners who don't follow federal guidelines can be penalized. For example, private landlords can lose the government money they're getting for providing safe housing.

Experts who study fires say people are more likely to be hurt or killed in fires in structures without working smoke detectors.

Thousands of fires happen in public housing complexes every year, according to an analysis of federal data.

That includes many complexes where records show that HUD's inspections have found smoke alarm issues.

Carson, and other HUD officials, said sometimes residents disable smoke alarms. Whenever inspectors or other housing officials identify problem alarms, they're required to fix them immediately.

About this data. ABC Owned Television Stations worked with lists of inspection summaries that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development publishes on its web site and periodically updates. The records provide summary-level information about each of its inspections of housing owned and operated by public housing authorities and privately-owned housing complexes where landlords receive taxpayer money in exchange for providing affordable housing. All of the housing must meet federal Housing Quality Standards. The published inspection lists are here for public housing and here for private/subsidized housing.

The lists show the most recent (usually three) inspections for each property, including the date, the overall inspection score on a scale of 0 to 100 and additional special notations about smoke detectors and the severity of any health and safety problems that inspectors recorded. We used HUD's guidelines for how often inspectors must return - which is one to three years depending on the last inspection score - to determine whether the two most recent inspections happened on time or were overdue.

ABC used HUD's inventories of public and private housing complexes to gather addresses, ownership information and to estimate the number of residents in a complex. For public housing, the estimate is based on HUD's reported census of the property. For privately-owned complexes, the analysis uses a conservative estimate of two persons per unit - well below the average for other HUD-regulated housing across the country. Among private subsidized housing, we only used those complexes where owners were actively receiving assistance as of the end of 2019.

The information posted here about each property translates the scores and codes from those inspection lists, using HUD definitions published here and several other places on the agency's web site and in federal regulatory documents, so that residents and others can better understand what HUD reports was found on each inspection. The data published here is only as up to date as HUD's published lists for public housing, which was last updated in April 2019, and privately-owned assisting housing, including inspections through December 2019. HUD periodically updates these files with more recent inspections, so 2020 inspections do not appear in our database. We care deeply about accuracy. If you have questions about this data, let us know.

About this investigation: see what we found in cities across the country

This investigation is part of a new data journalism collaboration across ABC Owned Television Stations. Data journalists obtained and analyzed computerized records about hundreds of thousands of housing inspections and fires and journalists in each of our eight local newsrooms investigated safety issues impacting residents in their local communities. You can explore what our investigators uncovered in their local communities by clicking the stations' logos below.

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