The windows on the 14th floor of 630 Cedar Av. in Minneapolis are still boarded up, a constant reminder for Mohamud Noor of the Thanksgiving Eve blaze that killed five community members in 2019.
Now, more than a year and a half after the fire, Minnesota lawmakers have passed a new law requiring sprinkler systems in public high-rise buildings like the Cedar High Apartments. Proponents are celebrating the move as a first step in making sure no other community faces a similar tragedy.
"This was closure for some of the family members that came to testify to make sure that this does not happen again," said Noor, a two-term Democrat who carried the legislation in the House. "This is a really significant first step."
Tucked into a broader jobs and economy budget bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz, the requirement means out-of-date public housing buildings built before the 1970s and 1980s now must be retrofitted with sprinklers by 2033, bringing them in line with current state requirements.
It affects public buildings across the state that have people living in spaces above 75 feet, the highest reach of many fire department vehicles. A large number of those buildings are in Minneapolis, but there are others across the state, said Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, who worked on the proposal. No comprehensive data exists on how many buildings need to comply with the new law.
The half-century-old Cedar High Apartments had sprinklers on the main floor and in a mechanical equipment room, but not in residential units.
"Every time I hear about a fire now, I look at how many stories it is and did it have sprinklers," said Dziedzic. "It will save lives, plain and simple."
An 18-page report from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Fire Marshal Division one year after the fire blamed the lack of sprinklers and outdated stairwells for the fatalities. The report recommended multiple changes, including the installation of sprinklers in all high-rise buildings.
Noor initially pushed for requiring sprinklers in both public and privately owned buildings as well as residential and office spaces, but the Republican-controlled Senate pushed back on including privately owned buildings because of concerns about using public dollars to pay for those projects.
"We wanted to make sure that we, as a Legislature, we're saying we do believe in safety," said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, who sponsored the broader jobs budget bill that includes the sprinkler change. "We do want people in these buildings to be safe and we know that sprinkler systems in these older high-rises can save lives."
Finding money for these projects over the decade is the next step, which Noor said could come through numerous funding streams, including a proposal from Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith to create a $25 million competitive grant program for public housing agencies to install sprinkles. Noor said he'll also push for funding through a package of construction projects.
Public housing organizations requested $100 million in a state bonding bill to pay for unmet construction needs last session, including retrofitting older buildings with sprinklers, but the Legislature adjourned without passing a bonding bill.
Housing groups say they support the call to add sprinklers, but they're concerned the law was passed without any funding to pay for it, said Shannon Guernsey, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
Public housing developments, which serve low-income households, are federally funded and cannot raise rent to cover costs of major projects.
"In addition to the importance of sprinklers in high-rise buildings, there are also many other competing needs," said Guernsey. "Updates to elevators, roofs that need to be repaired, many of our HVAC systems are decades old. There's a whole host of things."
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority says 16 of its 42 high-rises already have sprinklers retrofitted, and it plans to start sprinkler installations at another 10 buildings this year. But that work, estimated to cost more than $9 million, will consume roughly half of its capital funds from Congress in 2021.
The MPHA's high-rise buildings are all over 50 years old and together have $152 million in deferred capital needs, said Abdi Warsame, the authority's executive director and CEO. "MPHA would have hoped that the state Legislature would have recognized the scale of the expense and public housing's overall unmet capital needs along with its recognition of the need for sprinklers."
State lawmakers passed proposals in 1993 and 1994 to require that old high-rise buildings have sprinklers on almost every floor, but then-Gov. Arne Carlson vetoed the bills after objections about lack of funding. Carlson has since said he thinks the state "failed in that regard."
After those efforts failed, St. Paul's public housing authority started independently adding sprinklers to every unit on every floor in each of its 16 high-rise apartment buildings. The move took two decades.
Tom Brace, a former state fire marshal who serves as a regional coordinator for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, was there advocating for the change in the 1990s. He hoped the new requirement would extend to private buildings, but he's relieved that at least something has passed after decades of trying.
"I felt after Cedar-Riverside, absolutely this is the time. We watched as probably the best-equipped fire department in the state tried to fight it, and it was an all-out effort for them," said Brace. "We can't afford another tragedy like that."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042