A tragic incident in which three girls died from a fire in central Long Beach nearly six years ago now serves as a cautionary message to landlords across the state about building and safety codes regarding illegal garage conversions.
On the night of Dec. 14, 2007, Jasmine, 10, Jocelyn, 7, and Stephanie Aviles, 6, were fast asleep on the bedroom floor of a small apartment structure that had been converted from a garage into a living space at 1052 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. To keep warm, an electric space heater had been set up. Later that night, however, a fire broke out.
Though the girls were evacuated, they died from burns and carbon-monoxide poisoning. Arson investigators later determined that the fire was accidental and caused by the space heater and faulty wiring.
The living space had no smoke detectors or exit windows and had multiple additional building- and fire-code violations. It was determined that the building also had never been inspected by the City before or after the conversion was completed.
The incident prompted the City to launch an aggressive code-enforcement operation led by the Long Beach Fire Department and code-enforcement investigators to go after illegally converted garages. Exactly three years after the fire, on Dec. 14, 2010, the City drafted the “Aviles Law,” named in memory of the Aviles girls and to educate the public about the dangers of illegal garage conversions.
The law, which requires that property owners remove all illegal renovations and return structures to their original use, was later adopted in April 2011 by the City Council after being introduced by 6th District Councilmember Dee Andrews. The Council voted to rename all of the City’s municipal codes relating to the abatement of illegal garage conversions the “Aviles Law.”
Andrews also helped introduce Long Beach’s free-smoke-detectors program that allows any resident who can’t afford a smoke detector to obtain one from any Long Beach fire station for free.
Since the incident, a total of 646 garage conversions in Long Beach have either been removed or brought up to code, with fines totaling about $270,000, according to city officials. The City’s law carries fines of more than $1,000 per violation.
State lawmakers have since worked with Long Beach city officials to continue the City’s efforts by drafting a statewide resolution, known as Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 32, introduced by Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach). The resolution was officially passed by the State Legislature in May and filed with the Secretary of State on June 5.
While the resolution imposes no statewide fines, it recognizes that the provisions in city and county government building and safety codes regulating illegal garage conversions as “Aviles Law.” The resolution also declares May 2013 Building and Safety Month in the State of California.
On Monday, Oct. 21, city and state officials hosted a press conference at the Aviles residence. In attendance were members of the Aviles Family, who wept as the bittersweet event brought back memories of the horrific incident.
Lowenthal, who was a Long Beach councilmember at the time of the fire, said the goal of the state resolution is to place all city and county fire codes under “one roof” to make it easier for people in multi-family units to comply with the laws.
She vowed to work with Long Beach city officials on a state law that would take the resolution further with even more penalties.
“I’m hoping that we can do more than that,” she said. “Of course, prevention is number one, and education is up there as number one too, but for those who continue to violate our laws, we need to find a way to provide those penalties so that if they are renting in substandard units and they are found to be living in substandard units … Those owners need to pay for the relocation of people who are still living in those units.”
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), who helped push the resolution through the Legislature, said families need to be educated about building and fire codes and should be assisted in finding appropriate housing.
“I know times are tough,” he said. “For some families here in Long Beach and throughout the state, living in these converted garages seems like a viable option, especially in low-income communities, but we have to do everything we can to educate these communities [and] our low-income young families that this is not a viable option for them and that there are ways they can seek help to get them appropriate housing. This horrible tragedy could have been prevented.”
Long Beach Fire Capt. Pat Wills, who was dispatched to the scene of the fire in 2007, noted that the problem of illegal garage conversions persists, adding that 12 people have died in illegally converted garages and as recent as last week a woman was badly burned in a fire in such a structure in Compton.
“That’s why we have those inspectors,” Wills said. “They come out, and they ensure those locations are safe, because we never want this to happen again. Even though it has happened since that fire, we never want it to happen on this magnitude.”