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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Investigation Finds Electrical Fires Hit The City's Black Renters Hardest

Tiffany McCarver outside the home on North 14th Street where her mother, Patricia Colston, died in a fire.
Ebony Cox /Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tiffany McCarver outside the home on North 14th Street where her mother, Patricia Colston, died in a fire.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's recent investigation uncovered that Black renters are disproportionately impacted by electrical fires in the city. Their reporting also found these electrical fires happen five times more frequently in the city’s 53206 zip code.

Electrical fires are preventable with maintenance and proper care. But, negligence from landlords and a lack of accountability has left renters without a place to live and some of these fires have been fatal.

Patricia Colston and her friend, Clarence Murrell, died in an electrical fire on Milwaukee's north side in 2019. Colston moved in only a couple days prior to the fire, but she was unaware of the building's long history of electrical code violations.

John Diedrich is an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was at the scene of the fire. "You could see no evidence that there was even a fire from the outside of the house. There is a window broken, but really no other evidence," Diedrich says. "That's representative of electrical fires. They tend to be very smoky."

Upon further reporting, Diedrich noted that even though police and fire reports suspected that the electrical wiring behind the walls was the cause of the incident — however, it was merely labeled a tragic accident. Meaning that Colston and Murrell's deaths are not counted in the local or federal databases recording electrical fires.

"It's very painful for the family," Diedrich says. "And this fire was not determined to be electrical. And that's important for policymakers. If they don't know that these things are happening ... they wouldn't know that there's a problem to address."

Daphne Chen is an investigation and data reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She noticed a pattern right away. "When we looked at these electrical fires or suspected electrical fires two-thirds of them took place in zip codes that were majority Black," Chen says. "And on top of that in 53206, specifically, the rate was about five times that of the city average."

Chen says, "This was just another one of many, many, many equity issues that affects people on Milwaukee's north side. A lot of which were created by decades of historical patterns of discrimination."

When it comes to checking if your landlord has previous building violations Chen says the interface is not user-friendly. They both recommended looking at a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article listing the tips for renters to avoid electrical problems, how to research the rental property, and renter's rights.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
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