Smoke-Filled Rooms

How the landlord lobby limited the sprinkler law

So how much did the landlord lobby influence the fire-sprinkler bill passed by the City Councillast week? Just read the bill's first sentence: "It shall be unlawful for any person to tamper with a system of automatic sprinklers in any building. . . . " The second sentence is much the same, but forbids activating sprinklers when there is no fire.

It's not that those provisions are unimportant; certainly any sort of sprinkler sabotage could have grave consequence. But their prominence as the first utterances of a 20-page bill speaks volumes about the real estate industry's successful effort to shape legislation it knew it could not avoid. Crafted after a December 18 Brooklyn blaze left three firefighters dead and a Manhattan high-rise fire five days later that began in the apartment of actor McCauley Culkin's family and killed four people, the sprinkler bill faced bitter opposition by the major landlord lobbies; one objection was that tenants would vandalize sprinklers.

From December to March, the council, the mayor, and real estate heavy-hitters fought, lobbied, cajoled, and manipulated. Last week's bill was the final result. To be sure, what it accomplishes is considerable: new buildings with four or more apartments, and existing buildings undergoing renovation that costs at least half the property's value, must be equipped with sprinklers. But the measure is not without loopholes fashioned to favor landlords and developers.

As columnist Jim Dwyer reported in a March 9 Daily News story, for instance, Donald Trump will benefit from a provision that allows developers to omit sprinklers if new buildings are under 300 feet; two towers at Trump's Riverside South are 238 feet and 267 respectively. And Real Estate Weeklyreported that owners who constructed foundations before February 24 would also be exempt; that move will allow mogul Jerry Speyer to erect a sprinklerless West End building.

But the landlord lobby's muscle is most apparent in what the bill leaves undone. It requires no improvement for the existing buildings, which happens to be where New Yorkers live. Last year, 92 of the 107 fire deaths in New York were in buildings without sprinklers. "Who is protected by this?" asked Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels. "People in the future, mostly wealthy people who will live in luxury, high-rise housing. This bill is a step forward, but it's not as much forward as it could be."

Queens councilmember and bill sponsor Walter McCaffrey says that within a month, he'll draft a bill regulating new buildings with three units or less, primarily one- and two-family homes. Existing buildings will remain left out, and while McCaffrey says they will ultimately be dealt with, he couldn't say when. But it's a sure bet that when existing buildings are on the agenda, sprinklers won't even be contemplated.

"You'll never see retrofitting because the cost is just astounding, and there is no pool of resources to pay for it," says McCaffrey. Instead, tenants can expect education from the fire department about what to do in a blaze, and possibly the installation of public-address systems that would give instruction during a fire.

Landlords estimate that it costs between $3 and $4 per square foot to incorporate sprinklers in the design of a new building. Prospective tenants would pay for that in the form of higher purchase prices or rents, most of which are unregulated. The costs of retrofitting, which run between $4 and $6 a square foot, might be harder for a landlord to recoup in rent-regulated buildings, says Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 owners. "The real concern about retrofitting is, can they figure out a way to do it without economic calamity?" asks Strasburg. "If so, we should talk about it."

Even the New York Fire Department says retrofitting is too expensive. Paraphrasing fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen, deputy fire commissioner Michael Regan used this analogy: "There are some terrific autos out on the market with air bags in the front, the sides, the back, and they're safer, but they also cost $80,000 a piece. At the fire department, we don't buy any of those cars. We buy cars with two airbags. In the same way, you can't mandate retrofitting every building in New York City. It would be easy to legislate, but someone has to pay for it."

Opponents of retrofitting say that installing sprinklers in older buildings could cause lead dust and asbestos contamination, and note that the city's fire code has kept the per capita number of fire deaths here comparable to other cities where sprinklers are required. But the current code has been implemented only since 1968, and millions of tenants live in buildings older than that.

"There is no question but that a sprinkler system is the best defense against death," says Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "It's also clear that the council and the mayor didn't want to require retrofitting because that would be a big-cost item. But it doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. It looks like, in the wake of the December fires, the real estate industry realized they'd be stuck with some kind of law, and managed to avoid it for everything but new buildings."

Joe Corso, president of the Allied Building Inspectors Union, says he's "trying to get the council's ear" to pitch ideas that he thinks would go a long way to make older, lower-rise buildings safer without offending a landlord's bottom line. As for high-rises, he suggests requiring annual inspections of self-closing fire doors to make sure that springs work and doors really do close. Corso says a 12-person team could inspect every self-closing stairway door in the city and spot-check about 20 percent of apartment doors in a year.

Arguments about the cost of retrofitting buildings with sprinklers were so powerful— as were the people making those arguments— that citywide tenant groups sat this issue out. "My feeling was that retrofitting would be so expensive and there'd be so much resistance, we didn't even get involved," says Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. "The idea of retrofitting absolutely has merit, and I think we missed an opportunity, but my assumption from the beginning was that we would be so outgunned."

Tenants may have another issue to address if the council ultimately adopts the plan to install public-address systems to warn tenants of fire and instruct them on safe exits. McCaffrey says landlord lobbyists are already checking into whether the cost of such systems can be considered a "major capital improvement," which could be passed on incrementally— and perpetually— to tenants. Says McCaffery, "I already have tenants screaming at me about that."

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