Calls for more sprinklers after a blaze took the lives of five people in a Cedar-Riverside public housing high-rise before Thanksgiving have prompted some veteran fire officials to flash back 25 years.
Twice in the 1990s, state lawmakers passed bills requiring the owners of old high-rise buildings to add sprinklers on nearly every floor. Had the mandate become law, the 25-story Cedar High Apartments, heavily populated by low-income immigrants, might have had lifesaving sprinklers on the upper floors. The fire, which started as residents slept at 4 a.m., began on the 14th floor, pouring deadly smoke above.
The tragedy occurred decades after Gov. Arne Carlson twice vetoed broader sprinkler mandates. He did so after the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and other groups complained that the proposals to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers didn’t come with any money attached.
“I think we failed in that regard,” Carlson said in an interview. “From the viewpoint of safety, that should have come first.”
Now, after the dead have been buried, he hopes the new crop of lawmakers will push through a solution. The former governor said he did not remember all the details of the 1994 legislation, but today would “fully agree with” the financial concerns, which continue to vex the Housing Authority.
“What I do not agree with is not coming up with a solution,” Carlson said.
Former housing officials say the issue was always cost.
“I don’t think the housing authority ever took the position that they just didn’t want to do it. It was the ability to comply,” said Tom Hoch, who served as deputy director in the early 1990s. “If there’s funding involved, it’s a completely different story.”
Partly because of its age and how safety requirements evolved, the high-rise at the Cedar High Apartments has some sprinklers on its main level and lower equipment rooms, but not on the upper floors where the fatal fire erupted.
Long before the fire, state lawmakers considered requiring sprinkler installations in older buildings. While politicians jockeyed over the specifics, some housing authorities, such as the one in St. Paul, moved ahead on their own, gradually adding sprinklers to all of their high-rises. Others stuck closely to state requirements.
One early attempt to change the law came in 1967, roughly two years before the Cedar High building opened. State lawmakers, builders and property owners jostled with proposals that would have required sprinklers to be installed in many hotels and apartment buildings. But it would be decades before the requirements won approval — and even then they applied only to new construction.
In 1994, the DFL-controlled Legislature passed the first of two bills that would have required owners of old apartment buildings to install sprinklers that met the same standards that applied to new construction. By then, the fire code had evolved to require sprinklers in almost every room, with limited exceptions for spaces like vaults and tunnels, said Jennifer Longaecker of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
But the legislation did not provide needed funds to help cash-strapped public housing authorities pay for new sprinklers. Fire officials argued that sprinklers save lives, while some public officials and property owners argued that the new mandate would jack up housing costs.
“There was a lot of emotion around that issue at that time,” recalled then-state Fire Marshal Tom Brace, who testified in favor of sprinklers and now serves as the state director for the National Fire Sprinkler Association. “I think there’s a fair amount of emotion right now.”
Carlson, a Republican, vetoed the first bill, writing: “This measure would impose a huge cost on cities and would make publicly assisted housing even more difficult to provide. I am uncomfortable when the state legislature involves itself in matters which are best handled at the local level.”
Brace said he and other supporters met with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority after the first bill was blocked. Lawmakers added a clause that allowed the Housing Authority to apply for extensions if it didn’t have the necessary funds.
Brace said he thought the Housing Authority was on board the second time, but that other housing groups remained opposed.
Jack Horner, the former general counsel and lobbyist for the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, remembered meeting with Carlson’s staff at some point during the legislative fight.
‘Weighing the need’
He argued that high-rise buildings were generally safe, that accidental fire sprinkler activations could cause water damage, and that the mandates would drive up building costs.
“You have to be always weighing the need for affordable housing versus whatever other benefits might arise,” Horner said in an interview.
Despite the added time window, Carlson vetoed the second bill as well, calling it “profoundly similar” to the one he had rejected the year before. He called the new timetables “arbitrary and impracticable without providing owners reasonable financial incentives.”
Looking back, Carlson wishes they had revisited the issue and come up with a fix.
“We as an administration should have put together a team with the Legislature,” he said. “It sounds to me like the overall response was not adequate.”
Safety experts now hope the tragedy at Cedar-Riverside will prompt action, either at the state or federal level. DFL state Rep. Mohamud Noor, who represents the area, said he hopes to craft a bill in the 2020 legislative session that would require the owners of older apartment buildings to install sprinklers systems that meet the same requirements for new buildings.
Sen. Kari Dziedzic, a DFLer whose district also includes the Cedar High Apartments, said she plans to work with him. But both note that funding will remain a concern.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat whose district includes Minneapolis, is pressing the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a nationwide assessment of public housing sprinkler requirements while she prepares legislation requiring their use in virtually all public housing.
But even as local officials press for safety upgrades to ward off future tragedies, the funding concerns persist. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, either directly or through lobbyists, has warned government officials at the city, state and federal levels that it has a growing list of unfunded building needs. In a draft of its most recent annual report, officials estimated the backlog at $152 million, about $69 million of which was for “mechanical systems” that include plumbing and fire safety needs.
Dziedzic hopes that at least some new money will come from the federal government. She noted that even before the Cedar-Riverside fire Omar had introduced a bill that would pour $1 trillion into affordable housing over a decade. While that figure is a long shot, at best, Dziedzic said, “Help from the feds would go a long way.”
While pushing for enhanced sprinkler requirements, lawmakers also recognize the difficulties of adding sprinklers to occupied buildings.
“If you have to gut the entire building to put in this system, where do you move these people to? It’s just a logistical problem,” Dziedzic said.
Hoch said that when he was at the Housing Authority, they often added the sprinklers while doing larger renovation projects, to minimize those logistical challenges.
Altogether, just 16 of the agency’s 42 high-rise buildings have full sprinkler systems. A 2003 study estimated that a retrofit of 30 Minneapolis public high-rise buildings would cost $16.9 million. Installing sprinklers on all the floors of the Cedar High high-rise where the fire occurred would cost more than $800,000, according to documents obtained by the Star Tribune.
St. Paul’s Public Housing Agency, meanwhile, has spent two decades adding sprinklers to every unit on every floor in each of its 16 high-rise apartment buildings, at a cost of $8.3 million.
Noor acknowledges the financial challenges but said there is a moral imperative when it comes to safety.
“What is the cost of the loss of human life compared to the cost of installing sprinklers?” he said. “That is a question people have to answer.”