Watson Coleman, Rutherford Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Install Sprinkler Systems in Older Public Housing Units
Washington, D.C. (April 16, 2021) – Today, Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) and John Rutherford (FL-4) introduced bipartisan legislation to encourage public housing authorities to equip their older units with sprinkler systems improving the safety of residents and local communities. The Public Housing Fire Safety Act would create a grant program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide funds to public housing authorities who wish to retrofit older high-rise apartments. It would collect data on the status of sprinkler installations and submit a report to Congress on the presence or absence of automatic sprinkler systems in public housing with recommendations to improve fire safety.
“Sprinkler systems have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent widespread damage and loss of life in the event of a fire,” said Watson Coleman. “As this country commits to rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, ensuring our citizens living in public housing have the most basic fire safety measures should be a priority. The added benefit that it will help save the lives of our nation’s bravest makes this a no-brainer.”
“A public housing building without proper fire safeguards is a tragedy waiting to happen,” said Rutherford. “In recent years, fires have claimed the lives of those living in public housing without installed or up-to-date sprinkler systems. Many of these deaths were preventable. Today’s legislation will save both property and lives.”
The day before Thanksgiving 2019, a fire killed five and injure four in a high-rise public housing building in Minneapolis. Many other residents were left without homes. The unit, built in the 1960s, did not have sprinklers.
“In my district, five people lost their lives from a fire that broke out in a 25-story public housing building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis,” said Representative Ilhan Omar (MN-5). “After the local fire department cleared the scene and controlled the fire, they discovered these homes were not equipped with sprinklers. The building was so old that it was exempted from laws that required such lifesaving equipment. This is unacceptable. All public housing should be equipped with up-to-date sprinkler systems, which is why I support my colleagues in introducing this critical legislation to prevent similar tragedies.”
Thousands of public housing apartment buildings around the country were built before the Federal Fire Safety Act of 1992 when fire sprinklers were required in all new government-owned buildings, leaving over two million Americans living in public housing at risk. Some cities are particularly at risk due to their older housing stock. For example, 296 out of 316 New York City Housing Authority developments are at least 30 years old. Public housing authorities regularly work with limited budgets and without the resources to update and improve fire safety.
“Public housing is critical to ensuring people with the greatest needs have a safe, decent, affordable, and accessible place to call home,” stated Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The Public Housing Safety Act will help protect public housing residents from the dangers of fire and smoke inhalation, and Congress should include the bill in its American Jobs Plan as part of a comprehensive plan to fully repair public housing and to preserve and build more homes affordable to people with the lowest incomes.”
Modern sprinkler systems respond to fires before they can spread throughout the building saving lives, aiding first responders, and reducing property damage. A recent Study has shown a death rate 81% lower in homes with sprinklers than those without and a reduction in firefighter injuries by 79%.
“Over the past decade, we’ve seen the number of civilian fire deaths steadily increase.” Said Edward A. Kelly, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “Fire fighters know fire sprinklers save lives, so we fully support the Public Housing Fire Safety Act to fund the installation of fire sprinklers in communities across the country. I thank Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman for introducing this important legislation, which will help protect the safety of both the public and fire fighters.”
“The International Association of Fire Chiefs thanks Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. John Rutherford for their leadership in protecting residents of public housing from the dangers of fire,” said Fire Chief Ken Stuebing, IAFC Acting President and Chairman of the Board. “The government owes it to public housing residents to ensure that their homes are safe and given every possible measure of fire protection. Retrofitting these homes with fire sprinkler systems is a very effective way to protect these residents and their properties. The IAFC is pleased to support the Public Housing Fire Safety Act which is a proactive means of bolstering the safety of these homes. The IAFC urges Congress pass this legislation as soon as possible and protect these residents from the dangers of fire.”
The Public Housing Fire Safety Act has been endorsed by:
- International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)
- National Fire Sprinkler Association
- Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA)
- National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO)
- Minnesota NAHRO
- National Low Income Housing Coalition
- Minnesota Housing Finance Agency
- National Housing Law Project
- the Congressional Fire Services Institute
- International Association of Fire Chiefs
- the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association (PHADA)
The Public Housing Fire Safety Act is co-sponsored by Reps. Ilhan Omar (MN-5), Chris Smith (NJ-4), Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), Cori Bush (MO-1), Pascrell (NJ-9), Tony Cárdenas (CA-29), André Carson (IN-7), and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC-At Large).
A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.