December 18, 2019

Need for Affordable Housing Should Not Expose Residents to Less Fire Safety

To the Editor:

It’s good to know that the long and complicated settlement between Princeton and Fair Share Housing Center may be heading toward conclusion [“Town May Be Close to a Settlement on Affordable Housing Obligation,” Town Topics, December 11, p. 12].

Not too many people know that there has been proposed legislation in the NJ Legislature (S854 / A1897) to make large multi-unit dwellings more fire safe. This legislation was introduced after the huge fire in Edgewater, N.J., where 500 people lost their homes on a cold night in January 2015 in the large Avalon Bay wood housing development, causing serious displacement of families.   This event was preceded in 2000 at that site when the same company’s development under construction went up in flames, destroying nine nearby occupied homes and 12 cars. Large fires have occurred at other such sites in New Jersey  (Maplewood and Lakewood) and throughout the country as combustible wood framing is used in ever larger and taller multi-unit dwellings.

Such a fire in Princeton at Christmastime in 2016 (Griggs Farm) left one person dead and 35 homeless.  It took more than a year to rebuild the burnt units. This particular fire might have been worse if the existing spaces between buildings had not existed.  In addition, these units consist of 2 to 3 stories as opposed to such housing being built today with 5 or 6-plus levels, and much higher is being considered, creating challenges for fire fighters and other first responders.  

In 2016, the Princeton Council sent a resolution to the NJ legislature supporting legislation to make large multi-unit dwelling units constructed of wood more fire safe (some of which is “engineered wood” where wood chips are glued together).

The wheels of government grind slowly and are often influenced by powerful interests.  While fire and building codes are not determined at the local level, our mayor, Council and relevant professional municipal staff working with housing developers should urge that more fire-safe construction be used in large multi-unit developments in Princeton.   

Some of the key fire-safe solutions include using non-combustible construction material such as masonry, concrete and heavy steel (light steel buckles in intense heat), as well as space between buildings rather than the current huge attached unit structures which are more prone to the massive fires witnessed.

We know that affordable housing is needed but such housing (along with market rate buildings) should not expose residents to less fire safety.  Increasingly the fire codes have been degraded at the national and state level, in large part due to developer influence in the code formulation process.  The voices of fire fighters are not heeded as well as more powerful interests, though their safety and lives are on the line.

While these code decisions are made at the state and national level, our municipal officials can urge the various developers who will build affordable (and market rate) large multi-unit housing in Princeton to make them as fire-safe as possible.  The cost difference between combustible wood structures and  the use of non-combustible materials is apparently not great, certainly compared to the risks avoided (see

Grace Sinden
Ridgeview Circle