Fire Sprinkler Retrofit Mandate Will Hit Affordable Housing

Jul 18, 2017

Marco Polo Condominium
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

City Lawmakers will be considering a bill next month that could require the installation of fire sprinkler systems in older residential condominiums.   HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell (left) testifies before the Honolulu City Council on affordable housing last month with Transit Oriented Development administrator, Harrison Rue.
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell introduced a measure to retrofit all residential high rises without automatic fire sprinklers.  That would include all buildings over 75 feet in height and built before sprinklers were required in 1975.  Mayor Caldwell believes buildings without sprinkler systems --- about 300 in Honolulu --- will suffer in the real estate market.

“Think about the tragedy that we saw last Friday.  I think many of these buildings that do not have sprinkler systems right now in terms of value of their units it’s probably not as high as it was prior to Friday.  I think when they disclose on a re-sale people are going to be concerned.  So I think long term investment is actually going to improve the value of these projects and also save lives.”

Honolulu Board of Realtors president, Sue Ann Lee, agrees.  But, she says, the residents who will be hardest hit by these retrofits will likely be lower income renters.

Honolulu Board of Realtors president, Sue Ann Lee
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

“You know this tragedy that occurred is of course the impetus for it.  And it will affect affordable housing.  Because most of the older buildings, certainly, are the ones that are the least expensive, they’re rented out for less, they’re not the luxury condos.  So those are the ones that middle income and low income people are renting.”

Lee says potential buyers of non-sprinkler units will probably bid 5-10 thousand dollars below the market price to hedge against future sprinkler assessments. 

Building Industry Association C-E-O Gladys Marone says housing prices will increase and the BIA not only opposes the installation of sprinklers in new single family homes and duplexes but it’s also against any blanket condominium mandate.

Building Industry Association CEO, Gladys Marone
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

“Policy makers should take into consideration the different needs of the different buildings.  If it was a smaller building with less units the cost per unit impact would just be much more than a 500 or 600 unit building.  Every family makes a decision about their financial situation so we sure hope that the owners and the board consider that perhaps a blanket, it’s not gonna work.”

But, Retired Honolulu Fire Department Captain, Richard Soo, says the issue of retrofitting older residential condominiums with automatic sprinkler systems has been debated for decades and he remains positive.

“You know, back in 2000 we saw the same thing with the near deaths of two of our fire captains.  That was the First Interstate fire.  So here we are.  Same thing.  There was a push, there was a fervor in the community to retrofit.  It should have been a done deal.  You know?  Why do we have to look for fatalities to re-address the issue.  I hope that all high rises will be retrofitted.  And, I hope to see it soon.”

Retired HFD Captain Richard Soo
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

Meanwhile, the full Honolulu City Council is scheduled to hear the sprinkler retrofit bill August 9th.  Wayne Yoshioka, HPR News.