The fire-gutted units on the upper floors of the Marco Polo building are a gigantic black mark, not only on the 36-story curved tower but on Honolulu itself.

While it’s still not clear what caused the seven-alarm fire that killed three people and damaged about 200 units last month, there is wide agreement that a sprinkler system could have limited the inferno.

But how to pay for it? Government can and should help offset the cost of installing sprinklers in buildings put up before fire code required them. 

Buildings like the Marco Polo that were constructed before 1975 are not required to install sprinklers, and the cost to individual condo owners — as much as $9,000, by some estimates — is cited as the biggest reason to oppose mandatory retrofitting.

Forcing condos to install sprinklers is under consideration at the city level. Mandating sprinkler installation is the first thing that needs to be done, but financial incentives should also be on the table. 

It’s about saving lives. And that’s squarely in the public interest.

Two proposed legislative approaches, both inspired by the blaze, also deserve serious consideration.

At the state level, Sens. Glenn Wakai and Will Espero say they plan to introduce bills in the 2018 session to give homeowners incentives to install sprinkler systems.

The legislation could provide interest-free loans to condo associations, and exempt general excise taxes on sprinkler installation costs. 

The Marco Polo also failed to update its fire alarms to meet safety standards, another area that lawmakers need to address. Condo associations, meanwhile, should not ignore the importance of conducting fire drills.

Low-Interest Loans

At the county level, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has proposed making it mandatory for all existing residential high-rises without sprinklers to install systems. Existing hotels and businesses were required to do so under a 1990 ordinance.

One idea is to use community development block grants to create low-interest loans for condo owners, especially those living on a fixed income. Interest rates could also be deferred, as Honolulu City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga has suggested.

In the meantime, the council is moving forward on a resolution calling on the Caldwell administration to convene a residential fire safety advisory committee.

It was introduced by Fukunaga and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, representatives of districts such as Makiki, Kakaako, Moiliili, Aiea, Ala Moana and downtown that are home to many high-rises.

Convening a safety advisory committee has merit, and we’ve been down that road before. This time, lawmakers at all levels need to revisit and resurrect what a 2005 study recommended, including:

  • real property tax credits and exemptions
  • building permit fee reductions
  • state tax credits
  • city-sponsored low interest loans

Building industry and condo association representatives need to be at the table and a part of the solution. But they can’t be allowed to hold meaningful reform hostage because of political and financial interests.

Honolulu and Hawaii should also look to states like Florida and New York that require retrofitting of existing high-rises with sprinklers, and to cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Philadelphia that have introduced such requirements.

Retrofitting will likely improve the appraisal of many condo units, no small matter at a time when the median price for a condo on Oahu ($425,000) was at an all-time high. One in every three homes sold and one in every four condos sold were above the asking price.

While high-rise fires in Honolulu and Hawaii may be rare, the recent fire in Dubai’s 84-story Torch Tower — the second one in two years — illustrate that they are inevitable.

We provide tax credits to install solar panels on rooftops. Shouldn’t lending a public hand to help people with something as fundamentally important as safety in their own homes be as much if not more of a priority than helping lower electric bills?

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