Tinotopia (Logo)
TinotopiaLog → The War On The Poor (Housing Front) ( 8 Oct 2003)
Previous entry:
At Least They’re Honest

Next entry:
Hey Kids!
Wednesday 08 October 2003

The War On The Poor (Housing Front)

The War On The Poor continues apace, at least in Montgomery County, Maryland.

One of the recurring themes here at Tinotopia is the outlawing of poverty. We think that this is a Victorian issue, but a lot of what present-day governments do involves making it illegal to be poor.

None of these laws are actually called the Outlawing Poverty Act, but that’s the effect. And Montgomery County has now made it illegal to build houses without built-in sprinkler systems.

The problem with this is that it’s hard to be against it. You don’t want people to have sprinkler systems in their houses? What, do you want them to burn to death? You don’t hate children, do you? So these kinds of measures tend to pass unanimously, as this one did.

The problem is that things like putting trunk releases in cars, or sprinklers in houses, address very, very marginal risks. According to the state of Maryland, in the last five years an average of 6.2 people a year have died in fires — of any kind — in Montgomery county. That’s .7 fire deaths per 100,000 people. More people are killed each year in Montgomery county by being run over by cars than die in fires.

Statewide, 22% of Maryland’s fire deaths in 2002 (these numbers aren’t broken down by county or averaged over time) were due to vehicle accidents, arson homicide, or arson suicide, none of which would be prevented by sprinklers. If you’re trying to kill someone, or yourself, you can just disable the sprinklers. And God knows it’s possible to kill someone without setting them on fire.

If we assume that 2002 is a representative year, and that Montgomery county’s causes of fire death are the same as those for the entire state, this tells us that 5.456 people on average die in fires that might possibly be prevented by more sprinklers in Montgomery county.

So, if none of the 20%-30% of fires in Maryland that are of ‘unexplained’ origin are actually deliberately set; and if everyone in Montgomery county immediately had sprinklers in their houses tomorrow; and if all these sprinklers worked 100% of the time and never malfunctioned, as many as 5.456 lives per year could be saved, at a cost of… what?

Implementing the measure is expected to cost about $1.6 million through June 2005, when permit fees are expected to balance the costs of the requirement, Andrews said. More officials would be required to issue permits and conduct inspections, and inspection fees also will increase.

$1.6 million for administrative costs alone in the next year and three quarters — notice that they appear to believe that the money for higher-priced permits and inspections after that will come from the Money Fairy — and a rise of ‘about 1%’ of new houses’ total cost. And further note that this assumes that houses are expensive; a sprinkler system runs about $2000-$5000, depending on the size of the house.

The median price for a new single-family detached house in Montgomery County in 2001 was $289,000; so figure, using the county’s own figures, that the average sprinkler system will cost $2900. If Montgomery county continues to grow at the same rate, by 2025 the county will need over 218,000 more housing units; if the future is predicted by the past, half of these units will be single-family houses. (See here for the source of these statistics.)

109,000 houses times $2900 plus $1.5 million a year for permits and such (assuming the increases in fees predicted by the county itself will be about 50% of what they are now), equipping Montgomery county with sprinklers will cost $350 million, or about $15.8 million per year from now through 2025.

If we assume that, in a sprinkler-less Montgomery county, fire deaths would rise at the same rate as the population, this would mean that 6.366 people per year would die in fires in 2025. If every one of these deaths were eliminated by spending $350 million — which they wouldn’t be, because a lot of people would still live in older houses — this would mean an expenditure of about $3 million per life saved.

This is better than the estimated $37.5 million it costs to save someone who would otherwise die as a result of trunk entrapment, but it’s still a lot of money. It might be pointed out that sprinklers would prevent property damage as well as deaths, but sprinklers keep buildings from burning down, not from being damaged. A fire in a sprinkler-equipped house is less likely to spread and cause the house to be an entire loss, but keep in mind that once a sprinkler starts spraying, it keeps spraying until the water is shut off. And sprinkler heads can and do malfunction and spray water on rooms that are not on fire.

This additional expenditure to reduce what is already a very small risk will have the result of making Montgomery county an even less affordable place than it already is.

“It’s like having a firefighter in your home 24 hours a day,” said Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), one of the bill’s sponsors.

But we don’t have firefighters in every house, 24 hours a day, despite the fact that this would almost certainly reduce fire deaths to near zero. Why is that? Because we, as individuals and as a society, have determined that the cost of keeping a firefighter in every house is greater than the value of eliminating the risk of fires. If we hadn’t, more people would install sprinklers in their houses even where they’re not required by law. If you’re very rich, spending an additional 1% for a little additional assurance that you house isn’t going to burn down isn’t a problem. I’d be surprised if Bill Gates didn’t spend an extra million dollars to install a sprinkler system in his house.

But the cost of the sprinkler system relative to the cost of the rest of the house isn’t the important part here: it’s the cost of the sprinkler system relative to the net worth of the person buying the house. Bill Gates is, as I write this, worth $34.79 billion; that’s $34,790,000,000.

For Bill Gates to spend a million dollars, then, on a sprinkler system, is analogous to someone with a mere one-million-dollar net worth spending… $30 on a sprinkler system. A $2900 sprinkler system is, to a millionaire, what a $100 million sprinkler system is to Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ entire house, the one featured in magazines and on TV, didn’t cost $100 million. My guess is that even Bill Gates thinks about it before spending $100 million.

But ordinary people in Montgomery county — most of whom aren’t even millionaires, by the way — are being forced by the county council to spend this money, rather than assume a small risk. My guess is that next, the residents of the county will be hit up with tax increases to pay for subsidized affordable housing. And nobody will bother to draw the connection.

Posted by tino at 16:05 8.10.03
This entry's TrackBack URL::

Links to weblogs that reference 'The War On The Poor (Housing Front)' from Tinotopia.

This was my reaction when I read about this in this morning’s Post. It would seem I need to take my local elected officials to task.

Posted by: RRP at October 8, 2003 07:58 PM

But how can you assign a monetary value to the life of a child. The children are are future dontcha know?

Posted by: Paul Johnson at October 9, 2003 01:21 PM

Here are

some people who’d like to answer that question for you, Paul.

Looks like between $5,000 and $20,000

Posted by: Nicole at October 9, 2003 01:47 PM