Minnesota lawmakers seeking to broaden the state’s fire sprinkler mandate to old high-rise buildings are weighing the decades-old trade-off between cost and saving lives.
An emotional discussion is unfolding months after a fire killed five people in a public high-rise in Minneapolis that lacked sprinklers in some key areas. That deadly blaze brought new focus on the number of older buildings in Minnesota that lack systems to knock down fires because they were built before current mandates went into effect.
While veteran fire officials praise sprinklers as effective tools for preventing deaths and property damage, some of Minnesota’s largest housing providers say they fear a new requirement would place a financial burden on landlords who already struggle to keep up with the maintenance in aging buildings.
They argue that any new sprinkler requirements must come with state funding — an echo of calls that killed similar measures in the 1990s.
Among them is the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, which represents public housing agencies across the state. Shannon Guernsey, the group’s executive director, said they “appreciate the intent” of a sprinkler mandate and support it.
“The challenge is the financing of it,” she said.
New calls to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers came to a head after five people died in November at the Cedar High Apartments, a high-rise operated in the Cedar-Riverside area by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. All five victims died of smoke inhalation. The building, constructed about 50 years ago, had sprinklers on its lower levels but not in the apartments where the fire occurred.
Twenty-five years before the fatal fire, state lawmakers passed measures that would have required sprinklers to be added to old high-rise buildings. Twice, then-Gov. Arne Carlson vetoed them. He has since said that he thinks lawmakers “failed” because they did not work harder to reach a compromise.
Had those requirements been in place, there likely would have been a sprinkler inside the 14th-floor apartment where the Cedar High fire began.
“This tragic fire would have been quickly contained and most likely extinguished had there been the presence of an automatic fire system in that apartment,” said Minnesota Fire Marshal Jim Smith, whose office assisted in the investigation.
It’s unclear how many high-rise buildings in the state lack full sprinkler systems. Smith said his office has identified 42 buildings that would need to add sprinklers if a mandate passed, but they are still awaiting data from some areas, including Minneapolis.
Government codes did not widely require sprinklers in high-rise buildings until the 1980s. High-rise buildings constructed before then are not required to have widespread sprinkler systems unless the owners did major remodeling work.
That could change if lawmakers pass a measure introduced by Rep. Mohamud Noor, a DFL member whose district includes the Cedar-Riverside area. Noor’s bill would require sprinklers in nearly all high-rise buildings by 2032, with exceptions in circumstances such as open parking garages and condo buildings where most of the units are privately owned.
Groups that represent private landlords have been reserved about Noor’s proposal. Kyle Berndt, with the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, told lawmakers Wednesday that they are still reviewing the measure but would favor state funding if it passes. Public housing groups have said they feel funding is essential because federal rules make it difficult for them to increase rent to cover the costs of sprinkler installation.
CommonBond Communities, a nonprofit that purchased the Seward Towers in Minneapolis, provides Section 8 subsidized housing that would be subject to those rules. An executive there estimated it would cost $3.7 million to add sprinklers to those buildings.
“We laud the legislature’s intent to ensure sprinkler systems in buildings with seven or more stories, and if CommonBond had the resources to retrofit Seward Towers with automatic sprinkler systems, we would certainly do so,” Cecile Bedor, the group’s executive vice president of real estate, wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Unfortunately, we cannot do so without support.”
Guernsey said public housing property managers in her organization estimate they have $354 million in “critical needs,” such as furnace and boiler maintenance, elevator repair and plumbing work. Faced with a federal funding crunch, they often have to choose between repairing a roof and installing fire safety measures such as sprinklers.
“This is the thing that keeps our folks up at night,” she said.