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Is the City’s Sprinkler Bill Dead in the Water?

New York City

Sprinkler bill, co-ops and condos, Council of NY Co-ops & Condominiums, Presidents Council.
Dec. 4, 2020

The pushback has been fast and furious against a bill that would require sprinklers in 1.5 million New York City apartments, including countless co-ops and condos. And that pushback has brought together some unlikely bedfellows, including co-op and condo advocates, landlords and rental tenants.

The City Council held a hearing this week on the bill, which would require all residential buildings 40 feet or higher to install automatic sprinklers in every apartment by 2029. Experts estimate it will cost about $20,000 per apartment to install sprinklers and another $30,000 in water upgrades per building. Among those voicing opposition were the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC) and the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council (PCCC).

“It’s an idea whose time has not come, and I cannot imagine a time when it would make sense to open a million and a half existing apartments to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Stuart Saft, chairman of the CNYC, tells CBSNewYork. “A large portion of these million and a half apartments are fireproof already.”

In a statement to its members, the PCCC adds: “Experts have expressed that the level of safety provided by these requirements is minimal and the costs to comply will be exorbitant. The City Council must be made aware that these unfunded mandates are breaking the financial backs of the co-op and condo communities in New York City. We all want to promote health and safety in our buildings, but complying with (this bill) would be extremely onerous both physically and financially, with minimal safety benefits.”

At the City Council hearing, Department of Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca said the department supports the intent of the bill but added that it “will present a significant challenge for building owners and will be disruptive to tenants. We are currently not staffed to accommodate this.”

As for Saft’s contention that the bill seeks to cure a problem that doesn’t exist, the New York Daily News points out that fire deaths in the city have been declining for decades and numbered just 66 in 2019. In an editorial, the paper speculates on why the bill was drafted and introduced: “Here’s a wild guess: The Mechanical Contractors and Steamfitters associations, whose members install new sprinklers, have spent $126,000 since 2018 lobbying Council members in the bill’s favor. Those two groups’ lobbyists fundraised more than $26,000 since 2018 for council members Robert Cornegy, Diana Ayala, Costa Constantinides and Ritchie Torres, all signed onto the bill as sponsors. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Is this bill just supposed to protect public safety, or is it a favor to interest groups who’d profit from it?”

The pushback is already having an effect. Council member Ben Kallos, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, has taken his name off it, saying it has proven “too toxic.” And after the hearing, Zachary Steinberg, vice president of policy at the Real Estate Board of New York, wrote to industry colleagues: “It went very well from our perspective. Council heard lots of concerns, and (it) was clear the bill as written will not move forward.”

Which is a nice way of saying the city's sprinkler bill appears to be dead in the water.

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