House passes $300 million bill requiring carbon monoxide detectors in public housing

An NBC News investigation found that at least 13 public housing residents have died from carbon monoxide poisoning since 2003.
Image: Carbon monoxide detectors.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas, so public health experts strongly recommend installing detectors in homes to protect residents.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

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By Suzy Khimm

The House passed a bill Tuesday requiring carbon monoxide detectors in public housing, after more than a dozen tenants died from the gas in the last 16 years.

“It will prevent tragic and completely needless deaths,” said Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., the lead sponsor of the bill, which provides about $300 million over three years to install carbon monoxide detectors in federally subsidized housing for poor families.

"This is a bill that will save lives and help make us all safer,” Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said.

A similar proposal has been introduced in the Senate.

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The bill follows an NBC News investigation that exposed the lack of protections for millions of low-income families living in federally subsidized housing. Since 2003, at least 13 public housing residents have died from carbon monoxide poisoning, with four deaths this year alone, NBC News found. The gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless, so public health experts strongly recommend installing detectors to protect residents.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, however, does not require detectors in federally subsidized properties that it supervises for more than 4.6 million poor families, despite its mandate to ensure that all public housing is “decent, safe and sanitary.”

"It is unconscionable that the very people our government seeks to provide shelter for are dying in their homes," García said Tuesday on the House floor.

Following NBC News' reporting, HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced that the agency would propose a new rule to require CO detectors. But the rule-making process is time-consuming, and the department said it would be able to act more quickly if Congress passed a law requiring detectors. The bill also requires detectors in rural rental properties overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

The House bill has attracted support from industry groups that initially raised concerns about the cost of installing new detectors. The proposal takes a "thoughtful and evenhanded approach" to tackle preventable deaths, said Tess Hembree, director of congressional relations for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, which represents public housing officials.

Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., have introduced a similar, bipartisan proposal in the Senate to require detectors. That has yet to advance, though aides said they were hopeful it would move forward soon. Scott, who worked closely with HUD staff on the bill, called the legislation “a top priority to ensure the safety of all families moving forward” in a statement on Tuesday.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who introduced an earlier bill requiring detectors, called on the Senate to act quickly. "Right now, too many vulnerable families across the country are living without carbon monoxide detectors in their homes, needlessly putting lives at risk," Harris said in a statement.

HUD has also been supportive of the legislative effort in Congress. "As the secretary has said many times, any death is one too many," a HUD spokesperson said in a statement. "We’ve got to get this done.”