Fire and smoke pours out of upper story windows of an old brick building with a fire crane seeking to control them.
A three-alarm fire at a vacant four-story First Hill apartment building on January 1, 2024 spread to a neighboring building and displaced a dozen residents. (John Odegard / SFD)

Vacant building fires have become increasingly common in Seattle in recent years. In response to the threat that these fires can pose, Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed emergency legislation on Thursday to enact additional authority to more speedily order and carry out demolition or mitigation of vacant buildings deemed an “unsafe condition” under the Seattle Fire Code.

The emergency legislation would empower the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) to directly remove or abate, in part or in full, an unsafe building and recover any associated costs to accomplish the task from the property owner or person responsible. The City already has similar “chronic public nuisance” laws on the books for properties, but those are delegated to the Seattle Police Department, which rarely enforces them, and is focused on criminal activity beyond unauthorized occupancy.

MONITORING PROGRAM WORK? If the City cleans up or closes your property for you,
you will be billed for the costs.
The goal of the monitoring
program is to help prevent the
neighborhood blight
commonly associated
with vacant buildings. Monitoring program 1. When you apply for a permit that includes a vacant building,
your building will be enrolled in the vacant building monitoring
program. SDCI will conduct monthly inspections to make sure
the building is properly maintained and secured. Community Complains 2. If we receive a complaint about your vacant building and it is
not properly maintained or secured, your building will be enrolled
in the monitoring program if you do not fix the violations before
the compliance date in a Notice of Violation or if you have had
another violation on the property within the past year. You may
also be subject to civil penalties and inspection charges in
addition to monitoring fees. Program Unenrollment 3. Once you have had three monthly inspections with no
problems, or if your building is reoccupied or demolished, your
building will be removed from the monitoring program."
SDCI’s vacant building monitoring already takes the steps laid out above. (City of Seattle)

The City has long grappled with issues associated with vacant buildings and has adopted legislation increasing monitoring of vacant buildings, strengthening requirements on securing them from trespass, and making it easier to remove them, with responsibility for the program in the hands of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI). Despite these interventions, some issues have persisted.

Just last fall, the city council adopted an ordinance to increase materials required to secure vacant buildings, abate graffiti on vacant buildings, register vacant buildings into the monitoring program earlier, and allow the City to file liens on properties with unpaid vacant building monitoring fees and abatement costs. Monthly costs for inspections range from $271.85 to $542.60, depending upon the condition of buildings, and properties in an ongoing state of violation are subject to daily fines up to $150.

According to City statistics, vacant building fires have rapidly increased in the past few years. In 2021, there were 77 such fires in the city, then 91 vacant building fires in 2022, and then another 130 in 2023. Three people died in vacant building fires last year. Councilmember Tammy Morales noted her Council District 2 has been the epicenter of this crisis, with more than 60 fires in D2 since 2022.

City officials have attributed the uptick in vacant building fires to the homelessness crisis and drug epidemic, suggesting increased activity by squatters or those temporarily turning vacant buildings into drug houses. Without access to safe heating sources, unauthorized occupants have been known to set unsafe fires for warmth inside. 

So far this year, there have been 30 vacant building fires in the city. One of those included the three-alarm fire in First Hill that resulted in a total loss of a four-story apartment building on New Year’s Day. It wasn’t the first time for a fire in the building, which last happened in 2022 and led to its vacancy and displacement of tenants from all 63 units. But the January fire was a challenging event requiring more than 100 firefighters to put out the blaze and fighting another fire that had spread to an adjacent apartment building displacing a dozen residents.

Right now, SDCI is monitoring around 300 vacant buildings each month. Of those, about 100 are on the SFD inspection list with 40 of these potentially affected by the proposed emergency legislation. The fire department also estimates that up to 10 properties could be subject to the legislation each year going forward, but that will depend upon the condition of vacant buildings.

The City’s Fire Chief, Harold Scoggins, underscored the importance of the proposed emergency legislation and hailed officials charged with shepherding it.

“Fire responses to vacant buildings have continued to trend upwards. When buildings remain derelict, firefighters often observe holes in the floor, missing stairwells, structural instability, and other hazardous conditions,” Scoggins said in a statement on Thursday. “This presents immense danger to those who may be trespassing, to neighboring dwellings in close proximity to vacant buildings, and to the safety of our fire personnel. I thank Mayor Harrell and Councilmembers Kettle and Morales for prioritizing the safety of our firefighters and the residents of Seattle.”

Approval of the emergency ordinance will require at least seven votes in favor to pass it under supermajority rules. But given the gravity of the challenge and support from the city council’s land use and public safety chairs, the legislation seems poised to pass. Once passed, the ordinance will go into immediate effect.

Article Author
Publisher | Website

Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.