Jul 26, 2021 - News
Minnesota's push for sprinkler systems in public housing
Three Minneapolis firefighters leave a high-rise building fire with their heads down on a snowy winter day.
Minneapolis firefighters leave a building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood where a fire broke out on the 14th floor, killing five people in November of 2019. Photo: David Joles/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Minnesota is looking to Washington for help protecting public housing residents from a repeat of the fatal Cedar-Riverside high-rise fire two years ago.

Driving the news: A provision in the recently passed state budget mandates that all public housing buildings over seven stories install sprinkler systems by 2033.

  • But local housing authorities say they need more money to make that happen, especially given the backlog in maintenance.

Why it matters: Sprinklers save lives, yet many of Minnesota's residential towers built before the 1990s still lack them because the buildings were exempted from modern fire safety codes.

  • Fire officials say a working system would have made a difference in the November 2019 blaze that killed five people in the Cedar High Apartments.

What's happening: Members of the local congressional delegation are pushing for cash to help local public housing authorities with sprinkler installation and other maintenance needs as part of ongoing infrastructure and spending negotiations.

  • U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar have proposed a $25 million grant program for sprinkler retrofitting, along with other funding asks.
  • And Rep. Ilhan Omar's office says she secured $2 million for the city of Minneapolis to address the fire safety issue in a draft House appropriations bill.

Zoom in: Dozens of buildings in Minneapolis will have to add sprinkler systems under the new state law. St. Paul already upgraded its public housing units as part of a two-decade renovation.

  • The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority told KSTP that each retrofitting project costs about $1 million.

What they're saying: "Most of the people who live in publicly supported housing are elderly people [who] deserve a safe and decent place to live. And that is what we must commit ourselves to," Smith said at a Friday news conference and ceremony honoring the victims of the 2019 fire.

What's next: In addition to seeking federal aid, lawmakers and advocates plan to push for funding for sprinkler retrofitting in the next state capital investment bill.

  • Local legislators say they'll also seek to expand the mandate beyond public housing.
  • "This is not the end," said DFL state Rep. Mohamud Noor, who represents Cedar-Riverside. "We would like to make sure every high rise building in the state of Minnesota is retrofitted with sprinklers. That is the issue we will keep on fighting."
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