“Absolute craziness”: Critics slam bill requiring sprinklers in every apartment

Huge expense seen — or fines of up to $10,000 a day

Council member Barry Grodenchik (Getty; iStock)
Council member Barry Grodenchik (Getty; iStock)

Following a number of fatal fires, including a Bronx blaze that killed a dozen people in 2017, the City Council is considering requiring owners of many buildings to install sprinklers in every apartment.

The measure mandates automatic sprinklers in residential buildings 40 feet or taller. Owners would have until December 2029 to comply, at which time they would need an architect or engineer to certify completion of the work.

Building and apartment owners, many cash-strapped because of the pandemic, say the renovations would displace residents and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per building. The bill would pile onto the costs of retrofits required to meet the city’s new carbon emission caps.

“This bill is absolute craziness,” said Bob Friedrich, co-president of the Presidents’ Co-op and Condo Council. “In co-ops, you don’t have big owners there with unlimited pockets of money.”

The bill has attracted little notice since being introduced in October 2018, but was thrust into the spotlight when it was put on a Wednesday City Council joint committee meeting agenda alongside several other fire safety-related measures.

Council member Barry Grodenchik, who sponsored the bill, said a 2017 fire at a Bronx apartment building that killed 12 people was an impetus for the bill. The blaze was reportedly started by a child playing with the stove and quickly ripped through the five-story structure. A law was quickly passed requiring knob covers for stoves in apartments with children.

Grodenchik believes the bill could help prevent similar tragedies, but he said he is not “insensitive” to the concerns raised by building and apartment owners.

“[The hearing] will afford me the opportunity to hear from many, many people,” said Grodenchik, who has indicated that will not seek re-election next year. “We’ll see where it goes tomorrow.”

The bill has 11 sponsors. Council member Ben Kallos removed his name from the measure when it was brought to his attention earlier this week.

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Real estate lawyer Stuart Saft said that adding sprinklers has been estimated to cost about $20,000 per apartment, plus $30,000 in water-system upgrades for the building. Findings of asbestos would trigger additional costs and delays, and work would require occupants to vacate, he noted.

“They can’t stay in the apartment while all the ceilings are being demolished,” he said. “No thought is being given mechanically to how this is going to work.”

Fire fatalities in New York City have plunged over the past 40 years. In 1970, fires killed 310 people. Last year, 66 died. It was the 14th consecutive year with fewer than 100 fatalities.

No one disputes that sprinklers improve safety. The nationwide death rate per 1,000 reported fires was 87 percent lower in properties with sprinklers than in properties with no automatic extinguishing systems, according to a 2017 report by the National Fire Protection Association. Buildings with sprinklers tend to be newer and have other fire-safety measures, as building codes have been modernized and technology improved over the years.

In 2004 the city passed a law requiring owners to install sprinkler systems in office buildings that are 100 feet or more in height. Owners had 15 years to comply. However, a report by the Department of Buildings in November 2019 found that most of the 1,308 buildings that were supposed to meet the mandate failed to do so. As of Tuesday, 67 percent of the buildings were in compliance or working toward it, according to the agency.

The penalties proposed by Grodenchik’s bill are considerably steeper than those in the 2004 law. Owners of residential buildings with more than 25 units would face a $10,000 daily fine. The penalty for buildings with 11 to 25 units would be $1,000 per day, and $250 for 10 or fewer units.

Leading up to the final report required in 2029, owners must submit interim reports, starting Dec. 31 — less than a month from now. Failure to submit the initial reports could also result in fines.

Jan Lee, who owns two rent-stabilized properties in Chinatown, said bringing a new waterline into his buildings could cost north of $40,000. He criticized the City Council for moving forward with the bill without providing property tax relief to building owners as tenants struggle to pay rent.

“Is it fair to tenants to turn their lives upside down when they are trying to recover?” he said. “This is not just walking in and changing a lightbulb. This is major disruption.”