Link between fewer Hamilton vacant buildings, fewer fires

  • Mike Rutledge
  • Staff Writer
March 20, 2017

There’s a correlation between the number of Hamilton vacant buildings torn down this decade and a drop in fires, Deputy Fire Chief Lawrence Gassert found in his senior research paper for his bachelor’s degree in fire administration.

“Basically what I found was, in the census tract where they took down the largest number of buildings, it also gave us the largest number of reductions in structure fires,” Gassert said. “The second largest census tract that they removed buildings had the second largest drop.”

A study by a Hamilton deputy fire chief found a correlation between demolitions of vacant buildings, like this one, and fires in the city. STAFF FILE PHOTO Photo: Staff Writer

Gassert compared Hamilton’s building fires each year from 2010-2015 with the number of buildings torn down yearly by the Butler County Land Reutilization Corp. (known as the Land Bank) for the 26-page paper.

Gassert, 53, is in his 30th year with Hamilton’s fire service and has worked 10 years as a deputy chief. 

Hamilton and the Land Bank razed four buildings in 2012; 84 in 2013; 117 in 2014; and six in 2015.

“The correlation between the buildings (being removed) and the fires seemed to lag a year,” he said. That’s because the 84 structures torn down in 2013, for example, didn’t all vanish Jan. 1 — they disappeared throughout the year — he noted.

Often, empty buildings are more susceptible to fires because vagrants or criminals get into them, and intentionally or accidentally cause fires while trying to keep warm.

“In 2012, 29 percent of our fires were in vacant buildings,” he said. In 2o13, after only 4 buildings were torn down the year earlier, “39 percent of our fires were in vacant buildings.”

But in 2014, the year after 84 structures were demolished, fires in vacant buildings “dropped to 14.9 percent” of all fires, Gassert said. The percentage of fires in empty buildings was 15.4 percent in 2015.

Also, in 2012, the total number of structures structures was 100, and in 2015 it dropped to 56, he noted. “I think it does show there is a correlation between the number of buildings that you raze that are vacant.”

But it doesn’t explain the drop in occupied buildings’ fires, which dipped from 70 in 2012 to 48 in 2015, he said. Perhaps there are fewer fires in occupied buildings because when blighted buildings disappear from a neighborhood, property owners nearby take better care of their own buildings, he surmised.

Some may believe the demolition-to-fire correlation means the city should eliminate more buildings. Others argue in favor of finding other ways to get more building occupied. Gassert’s research found the number of empty Hamilton buildings rose from 11.1 percent of all buildings in 2010 to 13.7 percent in 2014— an estimated 3,700 empty ones, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

Here’s a look at Gassert’s findings about demolitions and reduced fires in specific parts of the city:

The drops in fires is good news for neighbors of such buildings — whose own houses could catch fire from a nearby building — as well as firefighters, who aren’t put in danger as often.

One reason for the smaller number of fires — a 31.4 reduction from 2012 to 2015 — in occupied buildings might be that property owners near vacant buildings could be taking better care of their own buildings after the blighted ones are gone, he suggests in his paper.

Gassert could find no similar study to the one he did. He has one caution about it: “When everyone (in city government) kind-of got wind that I was doing this paper, they started using words like ‘cause’ — like ‘the Land Bank causes a reduction (in fires),’” he said. “It doesn’t. There’s a correlation. They happen to exist at the same time.”

But: “There is a correlation — that’s obvious,” he said.

Nationally, fires in vacant buildings account for about 6 percent of all building fires. It’s been more than twice that in Hamilton, Gassert found.

“One interesting thing you could do is you could say, ‘OK, Land Bank people, we in the fire department are having what we think is an unusual number of structure fires — especially vacant structure fires — in a particular area. Could you concentrate your land-bank activity a little more in that area?’”

Another alternative would be to find ways to get those occupied, note Gassert and preservationists like Jane Matre Jacobs, a resident of Hamilton’s Rossville neighborhood. Jacobs is a strong advocate of returning buildings to life.

“I completely understand the problem with vacant buildings, and squatters, and the danger that presents,” Jacobs said. “I just think that seems like a law-enforcement problem, not a building problem.”

“The old buildings that we need to preserve are being torn down because of people problems, not because of a problem with the actual, physical structure, it seems to me,” said Jacobs, who restores properties with her husband, Monty, through their company, Occupy Rossville LLC.

“I feel like if you took the money you were using to tear down the building and cleaned it out, put maybe a roof on it — just some minimal things to it — you could certainly find somebody to buy it,” Jacobs said. “Especially with so many young people coming out of college with so much debt, that the thought of being able to live in a city, and save a building that’s going to be torn down, might be appealing, if you could do that inexpensively.”

She has restored three buildings with three others in the works.

“We just have seen so many buildings in our neighborhood get torn down, that about five years ago we decided we needed to do something about it,” Jacobs said. “It improves our neighborhood and saves some buildings.”

The way she sees it, in these days when people are so enthusiastic about being kind to the environment, “the least green thing to do is tear down a building,” she said, quoting a craftsman’s blog.