Building Health and Safety Standards: A Missed Opportunity

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Last Thursday, we reported the collapse of Episcopal building’s roof on Ashmun and Randall Streets, which resulted in the injury of two people. While we remain thankful that no mortality resulted from the incident, we also seize here the opportunity to reflect on the reason why it happened.

But first, we digress to consider Monrovia’s ballooning population and robust commercial activity. Every day’s hustle and bustle shows we are rebounding from Ebola’s devastating effects, and presents new opportunities to generate revenue through private sector development. One way of doing so is by enforcing building health and safety standards.

Monrovia today is sprawling with buildings, old and new. Some, like Providence Baptist Church, were built by the first settlers to dock on Cape Mesurado in 1822; others were built during the course of the 20th century; and still others were built in the last 15 years. These structures may vary in age, style and purpose; they all share a common characteristic: the need for comprehensive rehabilitation. Monrovia’s buildings are covered in mold inside and out. The materials used for construction are incompatible with our weather conditions; and even our ‘normal day blocks’ are giving way to cracks, and rain water seeping in through cheap roofing.

Health risks abound under these circumstances – injuries resulting from a fallen roof weakened by rainwater, or a slow death caused by living and working in mold infested rooms plastered with toxic oil paint (not witchcraft).

But who cares? While the Episcopal Building is home to important entities such as Ecobank and the National Oil Company, many of this city’s buildings host little known households and firms that have limited or no access to running water and stable electricity; and they are subject to fire and other safety hazards. Many of these tenants do not know their rights and responsibilities as tenants, under the law; and are powerless to defend their own dignity. Even if they tried, the costs of demanding quality from their landlords, or seeking recourse for poor building management, are prohibitive.

And, as it stands, only emergency situations like the Ecobank roof’s collapse seem to claim the Ministry of Public Works’ (MPW) attention. Their response: “The building is fine because there is nothing wrong with it, just the ceiling.” How do they know? Do they have a system established, in collaboration with municipalities and the National Housing Authority to prevent such incidents? Certainly not!

Currently, landlords are not even required to give their properties an annual paint job (a Mary Broh era requirement), let alone upgrade the plumbing, electrical wiring, or other utilities. As a result, a look across the city from any high-rise building yields one eye sore after another; and a trip to any given edifice is a miserable adventure – and unnecessarily so! Monrovia is a beautiful city, surrounding by water. The least we could do is to invest in our buildings, and complement her natural beauty.

We commend the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) for leading this charge, having renovated the old National Bank building and given Ashmun and Broad streets a much needed facelift. The new CBL sits as a jewel in a rag basket, unrivaled by the haggard EJ Roye, National Housing and Savings Bank (NHSB), and Ministry of Finance & Development Planning (MFDP).

While EJ Roye and NHSB are empty, though, MFDP lacks an excuse. Our nation’s treasury is hanging with peeling oil paint, dripping with air conditioner water, and covered with 11 floors of molded, wet walls – a cringe worthy sight that needs to change now!

What MFDP, MPW, NHA, LRA and our municipalities must realize is that mold equals money. All public and private properties must undergo periodic inspection, and landlords must be fined for safety and health hazards on their premises. Those littering our streets should also be fined for doing so.

This untapped revenue stream will promote better land lordship, add to public coffers, and promote good waste management practices.

Most importantly, measures to monetize city maintenance will have a positive psychological effect: Monrovians will finally recognize the value of this great city, take pride in its beautification, and feel compelled to invest in preserving it. The newfound beauty and comfort of this environment will inspire joy and creativity in all sectors, and make of us all a happier people.

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