Minn. lawmakers hope to revive push for sprinklers in old high-rises
Efforts to retrofit high-rise buildings with sprinklers following a fatal apartment building fire last year were stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Liz Navratil and Torey Van Oot
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers in St. Paul and Washington say they want to revive a push to retrofit high-rise buildings with sprinklers, after their last effort was stalled by the pandemic.
One year after the fatal fire at the Cedar High Apartments in Minneapolis, an investigation by state fire officials shows that sprinklers and other safety features could have saved lives. Built before modern fire safety codes, the 50-year-old building lacked a full sprinkler system.
In the weeks following the fire, state Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, unveiled a bill that would have required property owners to add sprinklers to most high-rise buildings by 2032.
"I think that bill had momentum. It was moving," said Tom Brace, a former state fire marshal who now heads the Minnesota chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Minnesota, "the issue overwhelmed sprinklers," he said.
Noor said he will push for the bill again in 2021, and he plans to meet soon with lawmakers and housing groups. He said he's encountered "minimal resistance" so far and is optimistic that additional federal money will help with the cost.
"Now we have enough time to plan and connect," he said. "I'm hopeful."
It's not clear whether the bill will garner support in the GOP-led Senate. Republican Sen. Torrey Westrom, who chairs a Senate housing committee, said he's worried about passing an unfunded mandate given the economic conditions and a possible state budget deficit.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R- Maple Grove, didn't respond to a request for comment on the measure and whether he plans to give it a hearing in the public safety committee it would need to clear to get to the Senate floor.
The funding issues are likely to be a key point of discussion, just as they were 25 years ago, when state lawmakers discussed the same sort of mandate but failed to reach a deal.
The Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials has urged lawmakers to provide funding, if they pass a new mandate. It argues that sprinkler upgrades are expensive and housing authorities, already struggling with a backlog, face tough limits on their ability to borrow additional money or raise rents.
The bonding bill that passed the Legislature in October included $16 million for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which runs the Cedar High Apartments, listed $151 million in unmet capital needs in its most recent annual plan, including $71 million in mechanical systems, a category that includes sprinklers.
It's unclear how many old, high-rise buildings in Minnesota lack full sprinkler systems. The State Fire Marshal's Office knows of at least 44 and believes the total number is less than 100. Fire officials in Minneapolis did not provide data to the state, saying that technological limitations prevented them from pulling full data from their system.
Some sprinkler proponents see hope at the federal level, given the commitment from Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's administration to public housing.
A proposal backed by U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, to create a $25 million grant program for sprinkler retrofitting in public housing buildings passed the U.S. House as part of a bigger housing appropriations bill this fall. While the program isn't in the current version of the Senate plan, negotiations are continuing.
Smith, who sits on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee, said she's hopeful that support from both firefighters and housing advocates will help the measure make it into the final bill by the Dec. 11 deadline for Congress to pass a spending agreement.
"There is a such a deep need for investment in public housing, especially sprinkler systems for these older buildings," she said.
In the U.S. House, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D- Minneapolis, said last year that she planned to introduce legislation to ensure public housing units have sprinklers. Her office did not respond to requests for updates this week.
(c)2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)