Skoog: Lack of sprinkler systems in public housing high-rises reifies structural inequity

Public housing residents deserve to be protected by the same fire codes as luxury condo tenants.

by Caroline Skoog

A fire claimed the lives of five people in the Cedar High Apartments on November 27. The fire originated on the 14th floor of the high-rise, managed by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), where no sprinkler system was in place. Because the property received its occupancy permit in 1968, right before government fire codes began requiring sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings, the building’s only sprinklers were on the main floor and in lower mechanical equipment rooms. Updated high-rise fire codes aren’t applied retroactively, leaving a lot of timeworn properties without necessary safeguards. 

More than 80 percent of MPHA’s public housing units are high-rise apartments; of the 42 high-rise properties they manage, 40 of them were constructed in the 1960’s and early 70’s and only 16 high-rise buildings are equipped with in-unit sprinkler systems. MPHA’s high-rise buildings are home to distinctly vulnerable populations, with seniors comprising 60 percent of its residents and more than 60 percent of residents having a disability. When taking the high-rises’ residential make-up into account, this is injustice by design.

When fire codes update, they’re meant to protect everyone. Not just those who can afford to be safe.

The fire has sparked conversations about retrofitting the high-rises with sprinkler systems. “It’s pretty darn clear to me … that the sprinkler system would’ve made a difference here,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, chairman of the council’s housing committee to the Star Tribune. 

Retrofitting old buildings is expensive, which is likely why the MPHA has procrastinated installing sprinklers for so long. Funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has steadily shrunk over the past decade, with federal capital funds meeting just 10 percent of capital needs expressed in MPHA’s public housing portfolio. 

Lack of funding previously inspired the MPHA to push for the HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which would shift partial or total ownership of public housing units to private developers. Investing in public housing would be incentivized with a special tax levy. This would enable repairs to be financially covered by private funds. Currently, RAD is only implemented at the Elliot Twins property. Personally, I remain skeptical on merging public-private ownership, but consistent inadequate federal funding makes it seem like there’s no other option. 

MPHA’s proposed 2020 budget to the federal government recognized, to some extent, the need for sprinkler coverage in its high-rise units: 

“Additionally, as building codes have evolved, we need to address increased life/safety requirements such as retrofitting our highrise buildings with sprinkler systems. MPHA has made infrastructure/building systems a priority and will target these types of improvements with its limited Capital Fund resources until major reinvestment opportunities materialize.”

Two sentences within the 127-page document doesn’t quite indicate high priority. They also didn’t request funds for retrofitting in the budget.

While fire protection has remained low on MPHA’s to do list, they’ve made “major security-related investments” in recent years. Their 2019 budget proposal states:

“Through security-minded enhancements to buildings and grounds — along with a dense network of security cameras, dedicated Project Lookout resident volunteers, and a strong partnership with the Minneapolis Police and the city — MPHA will continue to place resident security at the front of our considerations.” 

Security is important. But surveillance cameras can’t carry you down 25 flights of smoke-filled stairs. 

Public housing supports thousands of financially struggling families and individuals. Disinvestment in public housing doesn’t equate to the community’s vivacity. But housing these communities in unsafe conditions communicates that their safety isn’t relevant, but that the value of their life correlates to their bank account. Inadequate fire security in public housing high-rises is an artifact of red-lining. Structural inequity is built into the building’s architecture. 

Five people are dead. Now is not the time to wait “until major reinvestment opportunities materialize,” or for the free market to fix the problem.