For more than 20 years, states have quickly adopted most building safety features blessed by the Washington-based nonprofit that recommends minimum codes for the nation.
But that’s not what happened after the International Code Council decided in 2008 that every new American home should have fire sprinklers.
Instead, a review by ProPublica shows, U.S. homebuilders and realtors unleashed an unprecedented campaign to fend off the change, which they argued would not improve safety enough to justify the added cost.
Housing industry trade groups poured money into lobbying and political contributions. Their well-to-do members strong-armed local officials or dazzled them with hometown projects.
Their efforts set out a playbook for how influential business interests are winning in state capitals across the country. The housing industry spent more than $517 million on state politics in the last decade, second only to lawyers, according to numbers compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
To date, industry groups have helped block efforts to make sprinkler systems mandatory in new homes in at least 25 states. Only California and Maryland, along with dozens of cities, have adopted the International Code Council’s recommendation and required the devices.
ProPublica published a detailed investigation of how the fight played out in South Carolina. Here’s a look at seven other states.
On a Sunday afternoon in early May 2015, a fire broke out in Leslie Lamirande’s newly built home in Van Buren, N.Y. She and her son were safe — she’d been outside, watching him play. But her two-year-old daughter, Nora, was napping in her crib on the second floor.
After Lamirande screamed for help, a neighbor grabbed a ladder and tried to get to Nora through a window. The neighbor couldn’t reach her. The fire had spread so swiftly that the heat melted the ladder’s aluminum top. By the time a firefighter got to the child, it was too late.
The following August, Jeff Wilkinson, then-president of New York’s association of fire marshals and inspectors, evoked Nora’s death in arguing for the state to make sprinklers mandatory in new homes. “If we would have had a code that was updated,” he said, “that little girl would probably still be alive.”
Wilkinson began to champion a residential sprinkler mandate in New York after the international council’s action in 2008. Builders and real estate agents took the lead in the opposition. They were well-positioned, having pumped at least $45 million into state politics between 2004 and 2014.
The state’s real estate trade group paid for radio and newspaper ads that called the requirement a “job-killing proposal” that would “dramatically increase the cost of homeownership.” A sprinkler requirement, they warned, “would make homes unaffordable to build…and cost our state’s fragile economy more than 122,000 good-paying jobs.”
Less than two weeks before the state code council’s vote on sprinklers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo filled a vacant seat on the panel. Into the spot reserved for a local elected official, the governor appointed a town supervisor who was also a real estate agent. The firefighters and inspectors who favored sprinklers saw the move as solidifying the industry’s clout.
“We were shocked,” said Jerry DeLuca, head of the state fire chiefs association. “The appointment of a realtor did not seem accidental…It was clear there was an intent not to approve sprinklers.” Laz Benitez, a spokesman for the Division of Building Standards and Codes, said Cuomo’s appointment was based on qualifications, and was not influenced by the realtor and builder lobbies. Benitez did not say whether Cuomo supports a residential sprinkler mandate.
On Aug. 19, the council voted 10-3 against updating the state’s sprinkler rule.
Less than a week earlier, New York City had passed a law requiring sprinklers in pet stores, spurred in large part by a 2010 blaze in Queens that drew copious media coverage and killed many of the store’s birds.
Wilkinson was astonished the state wouldn’t do the same for people.
“You guys should be ashamed of yourselves,” he admonished the code council after its vote.
At the behest of the housing industry, a measure to ban Texas towns and cities from requiring sprinklers in new homes was attached to a bill about licensing plumbers in the waning days of the 2009 legislative session. It was sponsored by state Rep. John Otto, a Republican from Dayton. Over his career, the Texas realtors association has been his top donor, giving him $126,839, almost four times more than his next largest contributor.
Otto’s measure was retroactive to the beginning of the year. As a result, it quashed a sprinkler requirement recently passed in the small city of West University Place, a bedroom community near Houston. The city’s homes are densely packed and local officials were concerned that a fire could easily jump from one building to the next. George Boehme, a councilman at the time, said the ordinance passed unanimously despite a “very libertarian” council. He was distressed that the state reversed the city’s decision.
“They came and took control away from the government that was closest to the people,” Boehme said. Referring to the housing lobby, he said, “The powers that be were very strong.”
In an interview, Otto said he was not influenced by his campaign donors; He was worried thousands of families would be priced out of homeownership if sprinklers were required. His amendment, he said, was retroactive not because he wanted to target West University Place, but because if he had delayed, “there would have been a mass rush by cities to adopt the ordinance.”
In 2014, a woman and her two Rottweilers were found dead from smoke inhalation inside a new home in College Station, Texas. The local fire marshal, Eric Dotson, said sprinklers might have saved them, but his city is barred from requiring the systems. “The state overrode us,” Dotson said. “The law forbids us from even trying.”
Before the sprinkler issue was even being considered by state officials, lobbyists worked behind the scenes to pre-empt the discussion. In September 2009, records show the head of the state police department, who also oversees the fire marshal’s office, issued an unusual order barring himself from mandating residential sprinklers.
State Fire Marshal Lindsey Williams said in an interview that the department did so at the urging of “concerned individuals,” who persisted even when they were told Arkansas wasn’t considering any code change.
“They threatened to try to get state legislation” to ban sprinklers outright, Williams said. “This approach was much better than a piece of legislation because this still allows local jurisdictions some control.”
Asked to identify the concerned individuals who pushed for the ban, Williams said he could not recall.
The state legislature passed bills requiring residential sprinklers in 2014 and 2015, both times with roughly 60 percent majorities in each chamber. The first time Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill by not signing it. The next time, he issued a conditional veto, stripping the legislation of its central component, the mandate. The author of both measures, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Sayreville, headed up the transportation committee investigating the governor’s involvement in the Fort Lee lane closure scandal. After Christie blocked his bill a second time, Wisniewski said he couldn’t “help but wonder if he burned the bill because he doesn’t like the sponsor.”
Wisniewski called the veto by Christie, who raised money from housing industry donors both as a candidate and head of the Republican Governors Association, “a slap in the face to a community of public safety officials who have endorsed, supported and fought for this legislation.”
In his veto message, Christie said he rejected adding thousands of dollars to the cost of new homes as “citizens continue the struggle to rebuild their lives after Superstorm Sandy.” He did, however, request that state officials review the cost of requiring sprinklers in townhomes, where fires can more easily jump from one unit to the next. His spokesman denied that any animosity between the governor and the bill’s sponsor played a role in the veto.
In 2015, the state’s builders and the realtors spent almost $748,000 lobbying — which together ranks them sixth in spending.
After the International Code Council recommended residential sprinklers, Henderson — the state’s second largest city, with a population of more than 250,000 — began requiring them in new homes.
Then Chris Knight, the director of building safety in nearby Las Vegas, decided to follow suit in 2012. The city council urged him to negotiate with the homebuilders, who argued that the sprinkler mandate was ill-timed because of the region’s recent housing crash. So the two sides came to a written compromise: The city would back off as long as the builders’ trade group agreed to restart talks at the end of 2015.
Before that deadline could arrive, however, the builders pushed a bill in the Nevada legislature in early 2015 to ban municipalities from requiring sprinklers in new homes smaller than 5,000 square feet unless they jumped through various bureaucratic hurdles, such as an expensive cost-benefit analysis.
Knight said meeting the new hurdles for requiring sprinklers would be “extremely difficult and costly” and blasted the housing industry for reneging on its deal with the city. “We believe that this legislative action by the homebuilders is backing out of that agreement,” he told state lawmakers.
Henderson officials told the legislature that the city had seen a significant reduction in property damage and no loss of life in homes with sprinklers. Ron Lynn, a building safety official from Clark County, warned legislators not to wait for a tragedy before requiring sprinklers: “It is most unfortunate that codes are often written in blood and modified or adopted only after disasters.”
Homebuilders responded with a fierce lobbying effort, even hiring a research firm to present a cost-benefit analysis.
An earlier study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology determined the benefits of residential sprinklers outweighed the costs. The Nevada report came to a different conclusion for the local market. Sprinklers, it found, would cost an average $4,780 to install in a new home, but would yield just $2,550 in savings based on federal government calculations for the values of a “statistical life” and a “statistical injury…adjusted for inflation.”
While acknowledging that “the value of a life is priceless,” the report’s authors concluded sprinklers weren’t worth it “from a dollars and cents standpoint.”
Nevada’s legislature passed the builders’ bill in May.
In Minnesota, the builders found quick success in the state legislature, which passed bills in 2011 and 2012 prohibiting the inclusion of a home sprinkler mandate in the state’s building code. But they ran into a roadblock in the form of Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, who vetoed both measures.
In one veto message, Dayton, who has lauded the safety benefits of residential sprinklers, noted the concern among firefighters “that newly built homes burn more quickly.” He said the issue should be vetted by the state agency that oversees changes to the building code.
In 2014, the state code panel decided to require sprinklers, but amid pressure from the housing industry, the panel struck a compromise, exempting all but the largest homes — those 4,500 square feet or larger.
Then the realtors turned back to the legislature to get even that rule rescinded. Besides the usual lobbying, the trade group hired a call center to contact people in key legislative districts, offering to patch them in to their representatives’ voicemails where they could leave messages urging them to quash the requirement. The industry’s effort helped feed another move by legislators to ban mandatory sprinklers, which was attached to a crucial infrastructure-funding bill.
The state realtors then put pressure on the governor by getting the National Association of Realtors to pay for an advertising campaign. Ads on sites including Facebook, Google and ESPN.com were viewed 210 million times by Minnesotans, according to the group’s 2014 legislative update for members. “Ask Governor Mark Dayton to Protect Minnesota Families and stop the expensive home sprinkler mandate that will make a dream home even harder to afford,” the builders wrote. Those signing the online petition were contacted by the realtor group and urged to call the governor’s office. “The calls filled the voicemail system and crashed it,” the realtors’ trade group told members.
A spokesman for Dayton said he was “pretty sure” the voicemail system wasn’t overwhelmed. In any case, the governor threatened to veto the infrastructure bill if it contained a ban on sprinklers, and the legislature backed down.
So the builders moved the fight to court. With funding from the National Association of Home Builders, the local Twin Cities chapter sued the state, arguing their home-size threshold was arbitrary. Late last year, the builders won. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled there has to be “reasoned determination” in choosing a particular standard, and the court found no legitimate basis for a cutoff of 4,500 square feet.
As a result, sprinklers aren’t now required in new homes in Minnesota of any size. A spokesman for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry said there are “no plans currently for future rulemaking about this issue.”
In California, dozens of municipalities passed sprinkler requirements on their own, many doing so even before they were adopted into the nationally recommended codes. In 2011, the rule was instituted statewide. The trade group representing homebuilders opted not to fight the code council’s decision in the legislature, an official there said, because they thought they’d lose and because their organization has a longstanding commitment to treating the International Code Council’s recommendations — even those they disagree with — as a minimum baseline.
Tonya Hoover, the state’s fire marshal, said the change has been an unqualified success. “In this day and age, what we put in homes and put in structures is speeding up the spread of fires. They burn hotter and faster,” she said. “We haven’t had a fire death in a home with correctly operating sprinklers. They give people the time necessary to evacuate the building safely.”
Robert Raymer, technical director for the trade group representing California homebuilders, said he’s certain the added cost of sprinklers has priced some families out, but he said in general, the rate of new home construction is up, and the cost of sprinklers is much lower than other regulations required by the state, such as higher energy efficiency standards.
The biggest problem over the years, Raymer said, has been unfair hookup fees from local water districts that charge for sprinklers as if they’d constantly be running. But he said the fire marshal “has been incredible” about reaching out to those purveyors directly and negotiating the fees down.
Hoover said the financial disaster predicted by builders around the country hasn’t materialized in her state.
“The concerns other states are having, I know their economic dynamics are a little different than California’s, but I equate this with smoke alarms,” she said. “There was a huge, huge battle over smoke alarms. They said that was going to kill the building industry. Well, they’re still building homes.”
Read more of ProPublica’s coverage of politics and lobbying in our ongoing series, The Breakdown.