The Inevitability of Sprinklers : Century City deaths show the need for City Council action

The fire that killed two people in a Century City condominium Tuesday has rekindled the debate over the need for mandatory sprinklers in older high-rise residential buildings. Expense is the problem; many condo owners, especially elderly people on fixed incomes, cannot afford installation. Even so, the City Council, while keeping that in mind, must stop procrastinating and find a balance between safety and affordability.

For years, the fire chief has recommended sprinklers in all tall buildings to mitigate the logistic nightmare of fighting difficult-to-reach fires. The city requires sprinklers in all commercial and residential high-rises but exempts apartment buildings and condos built before 1974.

About 110 high-rise apartment buildings and condos lack automatic fire sprinklers. About 28,000 tenants and owners live in these older buildings, all of which are seven or more stories tall. At least 25% of the residents are women over the age of 65.

The cost of retrofitting the 15,000 units depends on size, complexity of architecture and the presence of carcinogenic asbestos insulation.

Installing sprinklers in the high-rise hit by Tuesday's fire would cost about $26,000 per unit, according to city officials. Affluent condo owners could absorb that expense or finance it with a second mortgage. But elderly tenants who bought long before they began to live on fixed incomes would have few options.

For apartments, landlords would pay the cost and pass it along to tenants. The city's rent stabilization ordinance requires owners to amortize that expense over 60 months. Installing sprinklers in some complexes could add more than $250 a month to the rent for five years. Few tenants could afford that.

Perhaps the cost can be managed. The city's Affordable Housing Commission is examining the use of limited sprinklers and less expensive materials and requiring landlords to spread the expense over longer periods. Councilman Nate Holden has proposed phasing in sprinklers, installing them in only common areas at first at perhaps a tenth of the cost of total coverage. His proposal, stalled for years, would also require retrofitting when a condo is sold or when a tenant in a rented condo leaves. That too makes sense.

The council should take the Fire Department's advice and demand some form of sprinklers before high-rise fires claim more lives.

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