Opinion: Single-stair construction could unlock local affordable housing

Overly broad, antiquated fire egress regulations drive up home costs in San Jose. Meanwhile, many European countries don’t even bother with multiple staircase requirements, given modern-day fire risk mitigation strategies. It’s time for reform, says Market Urbanist’s Scott Beyer. An Opp Now exclusive.

Overregulation is the main culprit behind high home prices in San Jose. Certain of these regulations get lots of publicity — rent control, parking minimums, and of course single-family zoning. But lesser known is the role of egress regulations on limiting supply and driving up prices. In California, all buildings above three stories are required to have more than one staircase for fire safety reasons. Some version of this requirement applies in most U.S. jurisdictions, enforced to let people exit tall buildings unobstructed in the event of a fire. But there are mid-rise buildings worldwide that operate safely with just one staircase. Legislation before the State Assembly would liberalize the rules in San Jose and other California cities, sparking badly-needed reform.

In August, the Spotlight reported that San Jose Assemblymember Alex Lee has introduced a bill — AB 835 — to let buildings above three floors be built with a single staircase. According to Lee, the requirement that mid-rise buildings have more than one staircase is antiquated given today’s fire risk mitigation strategies, which emphasize sprinklers and more resilient materials within buildings. In countries throughout Europe (namely Germany), as well as Japan and Mexico, single-stair buildings as tall as ten stories are common.

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San Jose’s fire marshal expressed concern about lifting the requirement. He notes that during a fire, one stairwell is used by firefighters while the other is to evacuate tenants. But fire deaths in Germany are lower than the U.S. — according to FEMA, there were 12.4 fire deaths per million residents in the U.S. as of 2011, compared with 6 in Germany. Canada, which regulates single-stair buildings more strictly than most of the U.S. (capping them at two stories rather than three), also fared worse than Germany, at 10.7 deaths per million.

The Niskanen Center notes that windows on mid-rise buildings are typically within reach of fire ladders, allowing for additional egress during a fire. The deadly Grenfell Tower fire in London, which occurred in a building with one stairwell, happened in a far larger building than most of these, and specific management issues caused the fire.

A growing number of housing advocates believe deregulating staircase requirements for mid-rises could help increase the number and affordability of units. Staircases are expensive; planning consultant Erik Schoennauer told the Spotlight that each one adds a cost ranging from $75k–90k for each floor. Cutting construction costs is essential to increasing the pipeline of housing projects, since the housing market has been hit hard by material cost inflation the last few years. The extra staircase also reduces the square footage that can be used for housing, with developers sometimes even reducing the number of units in a building to avoid triggering the rules. In the worst case scenarios, developers avoid building the maximum floors allowable by-right to avoid building that extra staircase.

Single-stair designs, by contrast, create “compact buildings with narrower and more efficient floor plates,†writes urban designer Michael Eliason. This cuts costs while also making buildings more energy efficient. A report by Eliason’s LarchLab found that foregoing a second staircase could cut as much as $27,500 per floor from building costs.

And they make for more attractive buildings, as to counter the common NIMBY criticism that new development is ugly. Because building two staircases usually requires a wide hallway connecting each side of a floor, builders tend to use larger plates. Single-stair buildings have less lot coverage and can fit gracefully between other buildings. Most of the venerated “missing middle†vernaculars that sprang up in pre-World War II America had single stairwells before becoming casualties of the modern regulatory state. 

California isn’t the only place where advocates and legislators are eyeing single-stair legalization. Seattle, unlike most U.S. cities, already allows single-stair buildings as tall as six stories. Efforts are underway to legalize them throughout Washington State. Under that proposal, the buildings would be authorized so long as they have stairs as well as an elevator. There’s an effort in Virginia to legalize six-story single-stair buildings.

The single- versus double-stairwell debate, like other regulatory ones, boils down to tradeoffs. While there might be some safety benefit to having two stairwells, it undoubtedly adds cost to each apartment. Another oft-mandated fire-prevention measure, in-home sprinklers, cost on average $3,200. Both expenses price a marginally higher number of people out of homeownership. They both seem less necessary as home fires decline each decade and other fire prevention techniques, such as the use of cross-laminated timber, increase. For these reasons, hopefully Lee’s bill gets traction and other states follow.

Original Opinion for Opportunity Now