DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Eddy Apartment Building had smoke alarms and fire doors, but it did not have a sprinkler system, which could have saved lives during the recent fire. However, even without the life-saving measure, the building was up to code.
“Buildings that were built under previous building code get to remain as they are unless there’s an event that triggers an upgrade. Change in use is one thing. With this particular building there was no triggering event that would make it a change of use or change in occupancy, or an increase in occupancy, so it stays legal,” said Suann Donovan, who oversees Des Moines zoning enforcement.
According to affordable housing advocates, older buildings are often less desirable, so landlords must lower the rents to fill them.
“Because of that, you’ll find lower income folks that need affordable housing gravitating towards those older buildings,” said Eric Burmeister, Executive Director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund.
With those older buildings comes the risk of living without a sprinkler system, but Burmeister says oftentimes that's the only option.
“To retrofit a 1920s building with a modern sprinkler system would simply make it so expensive that the owner would have no choice but to substantially raise the rents, which would then, in turn, make not affordable to folks that need it,” said Burmeister.
Burmeister says the solution isn't an easy fix either, as it would often be cheaper to build new housing from the ground up.
“The only way that we can build affordable housing today is if we’re able to help or subsidize the builder to build that,” he said.
As the cost of construction continues to rise, Burmeister says the tax credits and resources to subsidize builders is getting scarce.
“That pot is shrinking or staying the same, at best,” he said.
This leaves little affordable housing in the metro to begin with. According to a 2010 report, the National Fire Sprinkler Association estimates for an older building like the Eddy, a sprinkler retrofit would run $13 a square foot, which works out to just under $470,000.