See more of the story

The recent Cedar-Riverside fire that caused several tragic deaths makes it imperative that the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) begin work to outfit all of its high-rise apartment units with sprinklers.

The day before Thanksgiving, five people lost their lives after a fire broke out on the 14th floor of the Cedar High apartments. The victims had been living in a 50-year-old, 25-story public housing high-rise. When it opened in 1968, state and city codes didn’t require that each unit have sprinklers, so the building has smoke alarms but only “partial sprinkler coverage” on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment rooms, according to city officials.

But that’s clearly not sufficient to provide adequate protection for residents. Fire officials note that sprinklers are more than 90% effective at putting out fires before they can spread. MPHA should take action as soon as possible to make the buildings safer. In addition, federal, local and state regulations should require all older public housing buildings to have sprinklers and make more funding available for retrofitting.

Changing the fire safety laws has been debated before at the Minnesota Legislature. In fact, twice in the 1990s state lawmakers passed bills requiring the owners of older high-rise buildings to add sprinklers on nearly every floor.

Both times those bills were vetoed by then-Gov. Arne Carlson after MPHA and other groups objected that funding wasn’t adequate. “I think we failed in that regard,” Carlson acknowledged in a recent interview with the Star Tribune. “From the viewpoint of safety, that should have come first.” He added that he hopes current lawmakers will push through a solution.

St. Paul’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority demonstrated that with will and determination, it can be done. That city spent 20 years and $8.3 million on retrofitting between the 1990s and 2013 — that’s how long it took to install sprinklers on every floor in each of its 16 high-rise apartment buildings.

In Minneapolis, there are full sprinkler systems in just 16 of the housing authority’s 42 high-rise buildings, according to officials. Since the fatal fire, residents have called on MPHA to add in-unit sprinklers. And two elected officials, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and DFL state Rep. Mohamud Noor, plan to introduce legislation requiring sprinkler systems. Both represent the district where the fire occurred.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said earlier this week that he would support efforts to require sprinklers in the authority’s high-rise buildings but “the additional piece is that we need the necessary funding.” Housing authority spokesman Jeff Horwich told the Star Tribune that “sprinkler systems are a priority for comprehensive building modernizations … and are included in the modernizations that are currently underway.”

A 2003 study estimated that a retrofit of 30 Minneapolis public high-rise buildings would cost $16.9 million. Sprinkler installation on all floors of the Cedar High building would cost more than $800,000, according to documents obtained by Star Tribune reporters.

In its draft 2020 annual report, the Housing Authority reported $152 million in unmet capital funding, including $69 million for mechanical systems to address plumbing and fire safety needs.

Minneapolis should continue to seek more federal help to update public housing, but in the meantime the city must look for other solutions to make buildings safer. As an MPHA report rightly concluded: “While we continue to press the federal government for increased capital funding, MPHA and the families we serve cannot afford to simply wait.”