Residents were right to be suspicious of the Casa Tejas Apartments, the low-rent housing complex that burned down on Sept. 14, killing three of its residents and leaving 36 homeless.
According to documents acquired through a Freedom of Information request to the city of Killeen, the property had a long history of code violations and had not had a fire inspection since 1974.
The Killeen Fire Department does not perform fire code inspections on residential properties, fire chief J.D. Gardner said, and no state or federal law requires it to do so. Those provisions are up to the local policies established by the council.
As the Killeen City Council enters its review of the city charter this fall, new building and fire codes that stress public safety and the rights of renters may be at the top of the list.
Steven Ward and Charlie Manies were two of the 36 who fled the flames that Thursday night when their 24-unit apartment building burned to the ground along with all of their possessions. Neither said they heard a working smoke detector or fire alarm go off, nor could they access a fire extinguisher.
Within minutes the fire spread from the corner apartment, where it had begun around midnight — the cause is under investigation — to the only two stairways in the building, trapping many sleeping residents on the second floor.
The morning after the fire, Ward described his former home as a “death trap.”
When firefighters arrived, residents were lowering their babies and jumping from the second-floor balconies to escape the flames.
“This place slipped under the cracks,” Ward said. “You could have lost everybody.”
Before the fire, the building, in the 1300 block of North Gray Street in downtown Killeen, was listed as a real estate-owned or REO property with under performing rent by the real estate website Loopnet.com.
Since 2000, the building had been cited for eight code violations, including junked vehicles and two violations — one in 2010 and another in 2011 — of the international property maintenance code.
The city did not respond to requests for details of the specific property maintenance violations incurred during those years.
According to the Metro Property Preservation website, international property maintenance codes are minimum standards for the safety, health and well-being of residents and include fire safety issues, such as inoperable doors or nonfunctioning smoke detectors.
Aside from the code violations, state law requires that landlords inspect and repair fire alarms, said Jerry Hagins, spokesman for the state fire marshal’s office.
“If there were complaints, a tenant has a right to have a working fire alarm,” Hagins said.
The registered owner of the property — Austin-based Duval Enterprises LLC — could not be contacted for this article.
Beyond a right to have a working fire alarm, little else is required of landlords to protect their renters from fire danger, Hagins confirmed.
Unless a city establishes specific building codes that require fire inspections for residential properties, it is up to the renter to evaluate the safety of the structure that he or she decides to live in.
“Particularly with building codes, there is no state-wide requirement,” said Bill Longley, legal counsel for the Texas Municipal League.
“When a city adopts a code for fire safety, when and what shape it takes is basically up to the city.”
Longley said the city could pass an ordinance that would require mandatory fire inspections to be made every time a home or residential property is sold, for example.
However, it would also have to consider the added cost of inspecting those buildings, Longley said.
In October, the city will begin its three-month review of the city charter — the document that details all of the city’s policies, including building and fire codes.
Mayor Dan Corbin, who has been outspokenly critical of unscrupulous landlords in the city, said he is committed to reviewing the safety requirements for buildings during the upcoming charter review.
“We are going to have to identify and look at many of these codes. I think that this would be one of the priorities because it is a health and safety hazard,” Corbin said. “It is my desire for us to have ordinances that require people in the real estate rental business to provide safe and habitable living quarters.”