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As Fires Surge in Vacant Buildings, Mayor Harrell Proposes Emergency Legislation for Faster Demolition and Remediation of Risks

Seattle – Today, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he has submitted emergency legislation to amend the Seattle Fire Code and allow the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) to order and complete demolition or remediation of unsafe vacant buildings in Seattle.

“These dangerous vacant buildings are known hazards that put our first responders and the surrounding community at risk,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell. “While the City has taken steps to encourage adaptive reuse of vacant structures for new purposes, we cannot allow these unmaintained structures to put lives and property at risk from trespassers, arson, and other crimes. This legislation will give the Seattle Fire Department a new tool to take quick action to remedy derelict buildings that threaten the health and safety of our neighborhoods. I want to thank Councilmember Bob Kettle and Councilmember Tammy Morales for their partnership and urgency on this legislation.”

Fires in vacant buildings have surged in recent years. There were 77 vacant building fires in 2021, 91 in 2022, and 130 in 2023. This year, through April 15, there have been 30 fires in vacant buildings, including a three-alarm fire at a vacant apartment building in First Hill that required over 100 firefighters for suppression operations, displaced residents in a neighboring building, and shut down a major arterial for several weeks.

In 2023, three people died in vacant, dangerous building fires.

“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,” said Fire Chief Harold Scoggins. “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.”

SFD has identified over 40 vacant buildings in the city that are potentially impacted by this legislation and estimates that up to 10 properties may be addressed by this legislation each year. Depending on the degree of damage, the size of the building, the construction type and materials, the presence of asbestos, and other site-specific conditions, fencing and demolition costs will vary significantly. Property owners will be responsible for work to make the building or property site safe. In extreme cases, the City will be authorized to do the necessary abatement work and then place a title lien on the property to recover costs.

The legislation has been transmitted to the City Council for consideration in the Public Safety Committee. It includes an emergency clause so it would take effect immediately following passage by Council and signing by Mayor Harrell.

“This commonsense measure will substantially address the issue of dangerous vacant buildings. The inability to demolish these hazards has contributed to our permissive environment – a culture where the government stands by as the most predictable types of accidents or crime happen. It’s time for that to end,” said Councilmember Bob Kettle (District 7, Downtown to Magnolia). “This fire prevention ordinance will help the Seattle Fire Department abate or demolish dangerous buildings that put our community at risk, especially our firefighters who have to risk their lives each time these buildings catch fire.”

Many vacant buildings in the City are located in neighborhoods where there are racial and economic disparities. This new legislation would ensure that dangerous buildings in all neighborhoods are quickly abated.

“Between 2022-2023, there were over 60 fires in District 2. One of these fires resulted in a death. During the fire at the Jumbo Lot on Rainier & Genessee last November, over 100 firefighters were called to the scene,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2, Southeast Seattle). “Derelict buildings pose a significant danger and strain to not only our city employees but also the general public. That’s why I started meeting with the Seattle Fire Department, Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, and City Attorney’s office last year to discuss a policy solution that can address our vacant buildings with a sense of urgency. I appreciate Mayor Harrell and Councilmember Kettle for taking this up and will be co-sponsoring the legislation with CM Kettle.”

Last fall, Mayor Harrell proposed new legislation to strengthen vacant buildings’ safety, security, and management. The legislation requires that building owners use stronger materials for keeping buildings secure, creates a quicker path to collecting fees for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s (SDCI) monthly inspections of vacant buildings, and improves coordination between departments on problem sites.

Currently, 300 vacant buildings are being inspected monthly by SDCI as part of the program. Approximately 100 of these 300 buildings are on the Fire Department’s inspection list.