Omar, McCollum, Craig and Phillips Urge Assessment of Public Housing Stock following Cedar-Riverside Fire

December 20, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON—Reps. Ilhan Omar,  Betty McCollum, Angie Craig and Dean Philips sent a letter to Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, asking the agency to conduct a full assessment of national public housing in order to determine exactly how many facilities are currently exempt from sprinkler requirements and how many of those have been retrofitted regardless. 

On Wednesday, November 27th, a tragic fire that broke out in a public housing high-rise in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, killing 5 people. More residents are still in the hospital recovering from injuries. The building was not fully equipped with sprinklers because it was constructed before laws mandated the equipment place.

“There are more than 20,000 publicly-owned units operated in our state, providing homes to 36,000 Minnesotans and families,” the Members wrote. “They are counting on the government to help keep them safe and prevent another senseless tragedy like what happened in Cedar Riverside last month. We look forward to hearing from your agency on the scope of the upgrades needed in order to help public housing residents across the country feel safer under their own roof.”

Although Public Housing Authorities conduct Capital Needs Assessment to catalogue all their maintenance and repair needs, sprinkler systems may not make it onto those lists for facilities that are exempt and already burdened with a high backlog of needs. Further, HUD does not formally keep track of which older buildings have or have not been outfitted with the life-saving equipment.

The letter also asks for a cost estimate from HUD on how much federal funding the agency would need to ensure every public housing building was fully equipped, regardless of age.

The full text of the letter is below and here.

December 19, 2019

 

The Honorable Ben Carson

Secretary

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

451 7th Street, SW

Washington, D.C. 20410 

 

Secretary Carson:

We write to request vital information from the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the safety of public housing residents in our state and across the nation. As you are aware, just last month, a public housing high-rise apartment building in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Cedar Riverside suffered a devastating tragedy when a fire broke out the day before Thanksgiving. Five people lost their lives that day and more remain in the hospital, recovering from their injuries and the serious effects of smoke inhalation.

Sadly, the building was not fully outfitted with fire sprinklers, having been constructed decades before regulations were put into place requiring such safety equipment in all residences. The presence of sprinklers could have made a real difference in the Cedar Riverside tragedy, considering that statistics show that the death rate in home fires is 81% lower when sprinklers are present.

The federal government has a duty to protect the safety and security of public housing residents. But we cannot properly uphold that duty without an accurate accounting of what hazards are threatening these facilities, particularly in cases like this one - where the hazard may not be categorized by the Capital Needs Assessment or other maintenance-need inventories due to the retrofit exemptions.

We request that your agency conduct a complete assessment of the nation’s public housing stock to determine how many facilities are currently exempted from the sprinkler requirements established under the Fire Administration Authorization Act of 1992 and further, how many units in these facilities have been retrofitted despite the exemption. In addition to reporting on the overall number of units that currently lack a sprinkler system, we also request that you share with us the estimated amount of federal funding needed to bring all facilities into compliance with current sprinkler system regulations and ensure that residents are protected regardless of when their property was built.  

There are more than 20,000 publicly-owned units operated in our state, providing homes to 36,000 Minnesotans and families. They are counting on the government to help keep them safe and prevent another senseless tragedy like what happened in Cedar Riverside last month. We look forward to hearing from your agency on the scope of the upgrades needed in order to help public housing residents across the country feel safer under their own roof. 

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.