Five people died the day before Thanksgiving in an early-morning fire that ravaged the 14th floor of a public housing high-rise in Minneapolis. The grief of this tragedy has, understandably, led to calls to require that older apartment buildings be fully retrofitted with sprinkler systems.
We’ve no doubt that, had the Cedar High Apartments had such a system last month, lives would have been saved. We do doubt the economic wisdom of mandating the addition of sprinklers to older apartment buildings.
This space has written often about the growing need, in this region in particular and in the state in general, for affordable housing. Forcing landlords to go to the expense of retrofitting older buildings would certainly increase fire safety, but it would also make those living quarters more expensive and less accessible to the people who need them.
Minnesota has for about 40 years required sprinkler systems in new buildings of more than three stories or more than 15 housing units. In the 1990s, the state’s building codes began to require sprinklers in all multi-family buildings. But the State Fire Marshal’s Office estimates that only about 10 percent of Minnesota’s apartments have sprinklers.
That is an intriguing set of facts that suggests that much of Minnesota’s stock of apartments is aging. It is tempting, but probably too simplistic, to draw a connection between the sprinkler mandate and the decline in apartment construction. It is, however, quite likely the expense of including such systems — a builders trade group told Minnesota Public Radio that sprinklers add about $10,000 to the price of a single-family home — has helped chill such projects.
It is a painful balancing act: safety on one side and affordability on the other. A legislator who represents the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis promises to push for a sprinkler mandate, and certainly the Legislature should examine the issue. But we see a greater downside to a mandate than a gain.