Controversial sprinkler bill stalls after landlord backlash

“You might as well knock down the building,” one landlord says

Councilmembers Robert Cornegy and Barry Grodenchik (Photos via Getty;
Council members Robert Cornegy and Barry Grodenchik (Photos via Getty;

Following an outcry from small building owners, the City Council is going back to the drawing board on a bill that would require fire sprinklers in thousands more apartment buildings.

Council member Barry Grodenchik, who sponsored the 2018 bill, said it became obvious after a three-hour hearing Wednesday that it “could not go forward as currently written.” Between Monday and Thursday, four of the bill’s 12 sponsors dropped their support.

The bill mandates automatic sprinklers be installed in every apartment in residential buildings 40 feet or taller. Owners would have until December 2029 to comply, or face daily fines of $250 to $10,000, depending on the size of the building.

Real estate groups and building owners argued that the bill would not only overburden landlords with steep renovation costs but would require uprooting tenants and gut-renovating century-old buildings.

Landlord Chris Athineos said installing sprinklers in his building, which was constructed in 1850, would require taking apart landmarked plaster molding in its apartments.

“The cost is astronomical. Even if you gave me the money to do it, I still would not be able to do it,” he said. “You might as well knock down the building and build a new one.”

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Grodenchik said the impetus for the measure was a series of fatal fires, including one that killed 12 people in the Bronx in 2017. He indicated Wednesday that the Council had considered proposing another bill to provide financial support to help landlords meet its terms.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Council member Margaret Chin, who subsequently withdrew her support for the bill, expressed concern for her elderly constituents, saying she could not imagine forcing them to relocate as sprinklers were installed in their apartments.

“The fires that inspired this legislation were fresh in our minds when I signed on as a co-sponsor, and we had hopes that Introduction 1146 could be the solution to preventing future tragedies,” Chin said in a statement.

Council member Robert Cornegy, who chairs the committee on housing and buildings, said at the end of the hearing that he was alarmed by the projected costs of the retrofits, which landlords pegged at tens of thousands of dollars for even small buildings. He said he would work with Grodenchik on amending the bill.

Some owners, however, were frustrated that it took a three-hour hearing two years after the bill was introduced for members to understand their concerns.

“I completely blame the City Council for even wasting our time yesterday,” Jan Lee, whose family owns multifamily buildings in Chinatown. “This bill never should have seen the light of day.”