Labor commissioner, state lawmakers weigh in on regulating elevators in vacation rental homes

Experts warn that elevators in private homes are effectively unregulated, and people renting vacation homes along the coast may be at risk.
Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 2:09 PM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN N.C. (WECT) - A push to increase oversight for residential elevators in North Carolina gained steam this month when a 7-year-old boy was killed in an elevator accident. He was from Ohio, visiting the Outer Banks with his family and staying in a four-story vacation rental home in Corolla when the accident happened. Authorities say the child became trapped between the elevator car and the elevator shaft, and did not survive.

The tragedy happened just one month after WECT aired a special report about the growing issue of unregulated elevators in private homes along the Carolina coast. While commercial elevators, including those in hotels and condominiums, are regulated by the Department of Labor and inspected annually, elevators in private homes are not.

Over the last twenty years, new homes constructed along the coast have gotten taller to protect against storm surge and take advantage of ocean views. More homeowners have opted to install elevators to access the third and sometimes fourth floors, but if the homeowners fail to maintain those elevators, it presents a significant safety hazard. Magnifying the problem, many of these homes are being rented out to the public, so the elevators are getting heavy use. Vacationers have no way to know if the elevators in the homes they are renting are safe.

While efforts years ago to regulate elevators in private homes failed to result in action, North Carolina lawmakers and Commissioner of Labor Josh Dobson are now willing to consider regulating private elevators.

“As that industry continues to grow, it is something that we need to take a look at,” Dobson, an Avery County Republican who spent four terms in the State House before being elected as labor commissioner in 2020, said. “At least for those vacation rentals. Private residences that are strictly private residences, I think that’s a different issue than vacation rentals that are used for commercial purposes, even though they may be a single residence home.”

Dobson said regulating private elevators is not something he or Governor Roy Cooper could do unilaterally. They would need legislation to pass to enact that requirement. Several lawmakers WECT contacted on both sides of the aisle seemed receptive to the idea.

“It’s something that can’t be ignored at this point, because it’s happened with greater frequency,” said Representative Deb Butler, a New Hanover County Democrat. “And we’ve got to protect the public. You know, a lot of folks will say too much regulation hamstrings business, but not enough puts people in peril. So we’ve got to strike that balance and find out how we protect our visitors.”

In addition to the recent accident in Corolla, a 10-year-old girl was killed in an elevator accident in a private home in Carolina Beach in 2006, and an elderly man died in a 2008 private elevator accident at a home in Surf City. More recently, several people sustained catastrophic injuries in Brunswick County after private elevators they were riding in crashed to the ground.

While residential elevators can be installed anywhere, they are used more heavily in coastal communities. Butler hoped to work with other delegates from coastal counties to push for change. But because people from all over the state come to stay in vacation homes in coastal beach towns, she is hopeful a future bill on the issue would enjoy broad support.

Both Butler and Dobson expressed their grief over the recent elevator accident resulting in a child’s death in the Outer Banks, and said that they hoped the tragedy would help spur change.

“It’s so devastating and it’s so unfair and you can’t even put into words what a family is going through when they are going to enjoy their time together, and the loss of a child,” Dobson said. “I have a 16-year-old daughter. I cannot imagine that. So there’s really no words that you can say that would be able to understand what they are going through. I’m just so sorry.”

“I read about it in the news, and I’m horrified like everyone else, because as we’ve discussed earlier you expect an elevator be safe,” Butler shared. “Sometimes it takes a tragedy for us to figure out just how significant these things are.”

Brunswick County Reps. Charlie Miller and Frank Iler said they are also open to discussing mandatory inspections for elevators in homes being rented to the public, and Wilmington Senator Michael Lee is researching the issues. WECT also reached out to Reps. Carson Smith and Ted Davis, as well as Senator Bill Rabon, and will update this story with their positions on the issue when they respond.

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