Proposed State Requirement Could Limit Affordable Housing (5:45)

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(Update: On July 22, 2009, following a public hearing at which the overwhelming majority of speakers were opposed to a fire sprinkler mandate, the Michigan Building Code Review Committee voted 10-2 against mandating fire sprinklers in new home construction. The committee’s recommendation will be considered by the state director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, who will make the final decision.)

On July 22, members of the Michigan Building Code Review Committee will consider whether to make mandatory the installation of fire sprinklers in one- and two-family homes and townhouses for all new construction in Michigan. Some say this will save lives; others, however, say this regulation is being pushed by the fire sprinkler industry and could have unintended consequences, particularly for the poor.

Volunteers of the Lansing branch of Habitat for Humanity and supporting agencies are busy this summer building a two-story home for a family in need. One feature that will not be included in this home is a fire sprinkler system, but that could change if the state adopts a standard in the International Code Council’s national building code that would require fire sprinklers in new homes.

Habitat for Humanity of Michigan President and CEO Ken Bensen says his group is fighting to remove the requirement. He says fire sprinkler installation runs $4,000 to $8,000 for homes with city water and as much as $15,000 for homes with private wells. Bensen adds those costs alone could have disappointing consequences. “This makes houses unaffordable for many people,” he says. “In fact, we believe that if this law is not reversed, it will cost us a minimum of 20 families a year [who] will be denied adequate housing.”

Ron Brown is a regional manager with the National Fire Sprinkler Association, an organization that promotes the fire sprinkler industry. Brown says the association supports mandatory residential fire sprinklers. He comments: “The support from the National Fire Sprinkler Association comes from the fact that the fire service understands the importance of this technology. They understand the safety that it provides in our homes and are supporting the fire service in their effort to incorporate it into the codes and be sure that each state adopts the code.”

The Michigan Association of Home Builders is yet another group weighing in on the issue. Executive Vice President for Government Relations Lee Schwartz says he lauds the life-saving efforts of firefighters, but believes there is a less laudable motive behind the push for mandatory fire sprinklers. According to Schwartz: “This is being driven by the sprinkler manufacturers — unable to sell their product to the general public — who wanted to get it into the code [and] who finance people to come so that they would get it into the code…. And they think they’re going to have a bonanza. That has not been the case around the country, and so they’re here in Michigan now trying to get it done in Michigan.”

Schwartz says the National Fire Sprinkler Association basically concedes that its goal is to increase market share. “If you go on their Web site and look,” he observes, “what you’re going to find is the No. 1 member service that is provided by the National Fire Sprinkler Association is the creation of new markets for sprinkler products through laws, ordinance and code changes.”

When asked, “Is there any mention on their Web site about the goal of saving lives?” Schwartz replies, “On the section of director of regional operations, where they talk about what the member services [are], there isn’t one word about public safety.”

To be fair, the association’s mission statement, listed on a different part of its Web site, is “[t]o protect lives and property from fire through the wide-spread acceptance of the fire sprinkler concept.” Still, according to a 2008 report by Fire Smarts LLC and ResidentialFireSprinklers.com, mandating the fire sprinkler “concept” could also mean a market share hike from $100 million to as much as $3 billion, which the report calls a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

Brown acknowledges the market for sprinklers would grow: “I’m pleased with that because what it does is it creates competition, and it will drive the cost down of the installation of residential fire sprinklers. The ultimate goal here is to put systems into our homes that will absolutely protect the lives of individuals from fire,” he says.

Schwartz questions the idea of forcing people to pay for something that they may not want in the first place. “That’s money that you can use for improved health care for your family,” Schwartz observes. “That’s money that you can use towards educational opportunities for your children. That’s money that you can use to buy a newer, safer car. OK? There are all types of uses for that money, and you’re taking that money away from them and making them use it in a way that you think is the correct way, not that they do.”

In the meantime, Ken Bensen says sprinklers can be installed in homes built by Habitat for Humanity Michigan at the families’ request. According to Bensen: “We would be willing — if a family needs it or feels that they need it — we would be willing to put sprinklers in any house. If the family can afford it and can pay for it over a period of time, we have no qualms about that. What we’re concerned about is the mandatory sprinklers.”

Wednesday’s hearing before the Michigan Building Code Review Committee is considered crucial. Members will hear comments from people on both sides of this controversial issue and then make a recommendation to the state director of construction codes. The director’s final decision on mandatory fire sprinklers is expected to closely follow the committee’s recommendation.

While the resolution is being hammered out in Lansing, it remains to be seen whether concerns about affordable housing for low-income families will be drowned out by a potentially expensive mandate.

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Kathy Hoekstra is a communications specialist with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.