HAGATNA, Guam — Unsafe structures are specifically outlawed on Guam, but at last count there were 7,384 dilapidated structures — like the wood-and-tin home that went up in flames on Monday night — and people were found to be living in most of them, according to one study.
Joey Manibusan, chief of fire prevention and fire marshal for the Guam Fire Department, was one of the firefighters who responded to a fatal fire on Chalan Ge Halom in Yigo. He’s also studied similar properties for the fire department.
“There are many substandard dwellings around Guam in similar or worse conditions,” he said. Manibusan said the danger isn't just with homes made of wood and tin, but all substandard dwellings that don't meet building code standards.
"They lack safety features and may be vulnerable to fires or other hazards such as collapse or electrocution hazards," Manibusan said. "Wood-and-tin homes can be safe, if built properly. The issue is substandard dwellings and structures. These can also include concrete structures."
Manibusan cited a home he saw built with scrap wood and a tarp for a roof.
The Guam Comprehensive Housing Study looked at 53,673 homes on the island in 2009 and identified that 7,384 were dilapidated, or “structurally damaged, missing the roof or a wall and clearly uninhabitable.” Over 5,100 — or 70% — of those uninhabitable spaces were places someone called home.
The study was prepared by PCR Environmental Inc. and SMS Research and Marketing Services Inc. for the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority. Despite the law dictating that unsafe structures are supposed to be repaired or demolished, the GHURA study showed many unsound structures remain standing.
The Department of Public Works is tasked with examining unsafe or damaged buildings and notifying property owners that the structure is hazardous, local law states. The department also is supposed to put notices on structures they deem unsafe, which state the building is unsound and occupancy is prohibited.
Any person found in the building without permission from the Public Works director is subject to a $1,000 fine, imprisonment or both, the law states.
Public Works Director Glenn Leon Guerrero said his office has six inspectors and six engineers who inspect buildings to determine if they are hazardous. However, there is no designated team of people to address unsound structures, so existing inspectors must balance these types of examinations with other duties — building permits, property encroachments and others.
Residents sometimes call Public Works about substandard homes or damaged buildings. Other times, before a resident can get a power connection to their home, Public Works must first ensure the place is up to building code, which is how they learn of some unsound dwellings, Leon Guerrero said.
Sen. Tom Ada, chairman of the legislative committee that oversees Public Works, said the agency may not be fully enforcing the law because it lacks resources. Ada is seeking re-election.
Enforcing the law completely might come at the price of displacing a family, Ada said. He said he knows of at least one pocket of substandard homes in Yigo that would fail a government inspection and residents would have to vacate the homes.
“Think about this one point, something like that abandoned building (in Yigo),” Ada said. “So DPW goes in there, it’s being occupied by a family. Where do they (the family) go? So we fix up one problem and we create another problem. I think that’s where the dilemma is.”
Leon Guerrero said he would like to take a holistic approach when dealing with unsafe dwellings. Evicting a family from an unsafe building isn't really a solution, the director said.
"I'm not just going to stop there, I'm going to call (Guam Housing Corporation) or GHURA and say, 'OK, ... your house is not safe and we have these people, Guam Housing or GHURA, that have places where you can actually stay where it's a safer facility,'" he said. "I'm not going to displace people unless I've got a place to put them."
More in north
A little more than half of all residential homes on island, 53 percent, are concentrated in Dededo, Tamuning and Yigo. And homes in the north are more likely than homes in central or southern Guam to be dilapidated, the housing study stated.
Dededo Mayor Melissa Savares, who is seeking re-election, said there are a lot of substandard homes in her village. Many are in the Astumbo area or on Chamorro Land Trust Commission lots. Some are wood-and-tin extensions attached to houses.
“Sometimes families, if they’re just starting off or they’re just not working, these are the only type of homes they can afford to be in,” Savares said. “Sometimes it’s not a choice. It’s something that they have to deal with until they can find something better.”
The family that inhabited the Yigo structure that burned were living in an abandoned home that had no running power or water, according to Yigo Mayor Rudy Matanane. Matanane is running for re-election.
The uninhabitable structures that she’s seen usually only have one entrance and exit, Savares said. The fire department advises residents to have an escape plan which includes at least two ways to get out of a home.
Don't want help
When they come across these homes, Savares said her office tries to work with government agencies that can assist them, but some people don't want the help.
“This is what they want it to be for themselves. It’s their choice,” she said. “Even if we say, ‘You can apply for this program or that program,’ they just don’t want (help).”
Some residents call Savares’ office to voice concerns about an abandoned building in their neighborhood. More than once, the mayor has contacted a property owner, and the owner lives off island and entrusted the place to a person that didn't maintain the building.
“That’s when the squatters go in. Then they become a problem for the neighborhood,” Savares said.
There have been times when Savares has called police to check on an abandoned property where illegal activity was suspected and the place was boarded up. Unfortunately, mayors don't have authority to fine owners, Savares said.
- GFD advises residents to have at least one operating smoke detector in the home.
- Other than working smoke detectors, GFD also encourages residents to have an escape plan which includes two different ways to exit the building, practice caution when cooking and use electricity safely.