Burned-out buildings and housing violations.

The apartment building at 182 Benton St., gutted by a November fire that routed 13 people, remains largely unchanged. Today, it stands in sharp contrast to the orderly home next door. (STEPHEN DUNN, Hartford Courant / April 30, 2011)

After fire hit Joseph Palenza's multifamily building at 479-481 Farmington Ave. last month, city inspectors made a troubling discovery.

So many electrical hazards had accumulated over time — extension cords plugged into light sockets; loose or improper connections in junction boxes; overloaded circuits; overheated, undersized wiring; electrical work done without permits — that inspectors were forced to shut the entire building down even though most of it was not damaged by the fire.

The official cause of the blaze, which displaced five residents in the 12-unit West End building, was listed as undetermined.

The scenario was all-too familiar: In Hartford, fire and housing violations go hand in hand at an alarming rate, fueling the blight that burdens many of the city's neighborhoods.

The Courant reviewed all 70 residential fires between August, 2009, and April 1, 2011, in which at least one person was displaced.

The review found that 40 of the 70 buildings — nearly 60 percent — had housing- or building-code violations that predated the fires.

In contrast, city housing and building inspectors normally verify about 30 percent of the complaints they receive — which means fire found troubled multifamily buildings in Hartford at about twice that rate in the past 18 months.

The confirmed hazards and other code violations included unsafe electrical wiring, illegal rooming houses, illegal conversions from three- to five-family houses, illegal construction work, heat and hot water service interruptions, leaks, holes in the walls and roofs, rodent and vermin infestation, blocked fire exits, and garbage-strewn, overgrown properties.

The 40 buildings are mostly in areas already saddled with troubled properties: the Northeast neighborhood, Clay-Arsenal, Asylum Hill, Putnam Heights and the Hillside Avenue-New Britain Avenue area in south Hartford.

Thirty-two of the 40 buildings with existing violations were owned by absentee landlords, who do not live on the properties they are renting out.

The 70 fires forced 854 people out of their homes; more than 600 of those displaced lived in the 40 buildings with existing hazards and other violations.

Three people died in the 70 fires. One of those people perished in one of the 40 buildings with existing problems, though that blaze, at 481 Albany Ave., was an arson homicide and not linked to any violations.

"It's a bad cycle if you can't get out in front of these problems,'' said Glenn Corbett, a national fire-safety expert who is chairman of the school of protection management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

He said financially strapped cities like Hartford are weighed down with hazards associated with an aging housing stock, such as illegal apartment conversions in basements and attics and construction work done without permits — work that is often subpar. Because no permits are obtained, the city would be unaware of the work and unable to inspect it unless it got a complaint.

"We're really sitting on the edge of disaster — and the scary thing is that you don't know about the problem until you get the complaint,'' said Corbett.

Downward Spiral

A pattern of problems has emerged around the aging, overwhelmed buildings that characterize a lot of Hartford's low-end multifamily housing, city housing experts say.

Tenants go from one shoddy apartment to the next, often skipping out on months of back rent in their former building, and landlords are desperate enough to rent to anyone with the first month's rent.

Absentee owners have walked away from their properties and, in some cases, ceded control of their building to squatters and former tenants, who often charge rent and run up utility bills before bailing.