Honolulu has tried tax credits and waiving city permit fees, but many high-rise condominium owners still struggle to comply with strict fire safety rules four years after the deadly Marco Polo blaze. 

The July 2017 fire, which killed four people, prompted a law to be passed the next year requiring older buildings over 10 stories tall to install automatic sprinkler systems or pass a point-based system measuring other safety features such as smoke detectors, alarm systems and concrete walls.

But most of the buildings have either not complied or failed the so-called Life Safety Evaluation. The deadline for compliance has been extended to May. Those that fail the evaluation have until 2025 get a passing score. 

Many property owners say the requirement is too expensive since the process of retrofitting the aging buildings is complicated and can cost tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

High-rise condominium owners are still struggling to comply with the fire safety ordinance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The pandemic has made it harder since many people lost jobs and have been unable to pay rent or mortgage payments.

“It’s been a challenge because we’re still not out of the woods yet,” said Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Community Associations. “Not with the Covid surge. God knows when we’re going to get out of this.”

“We might have to go back to the city and ask for more extensions,” she added. “It’s like these deadlines come up and you have to comply. Then you have people who live in the units, or have tenants who aren’t working and have no money coming in.”

In an indication of the extent of failure to comply, the 2018 law applies to 324 high-rise buildings without sprinklers, according to the Honolulu Fire Department.

Failure To Comply

Since the Marco Polo fire, there have been 239 high-rise fires and 79.4% of the buildings that burned did not have sprinklers, according to HFD. 

In the latest incentive effort, City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga introduced a bill on Aug. 5 that would give individual high-rise condo owners property tax breaks in exchange for making the improvements. If the bill becomes law, it will go into effect on July 1, 2023.

The draft measure was in line with a suggestion made by people testifying at a council meeting in June. Bill 35 doesn’t have a set number of years for how long condo owners would be exempt from paying property taxes. Instead it says owners must submit an annual report about their progress on fire safety installations no later than Sept. 1 each year. 

Fukunaga declined to further comment on the measure because it’s in the early stages of the council’s legislative process. The bill passed its first hearing and needs two more before it goes to the mayor’s office.

The 2017 Marco Polo fire raised concerns about high-rise buildings not having sprinklers. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

The 36-story Marco Polo was built in 1971 and was not equipped with sprinklers since the city didn’t start requiring them until 1975.

Only six of the 102 buildings that were submitted to the Life Safety Evaluation passed, according to a six-month report presented by HFD in April.

Sugimura estimated that it could cost some buildings up to $5 million to install sprinklers and about $1 million to pass the Life Safety Evaluation, which is assessed by licensed architects or engineers. 

“I don’t know where people think that condominium owners have a ton of money, but they don’t,” Sugimura said.

Offering Incentives

Sugimura lives in the Pearl One building, which she said is one that failed the Life Safety Evaluation.

The evaluation works by points earned or lost based on fire safety features. For example, a building gets points if it has smoke detectors, alarm systems and concrete walls, but may lose points for broken alarm systems or having drywall between units.

In 2017, the City Council offered a series of measures to assist condo owners to comply with the fire safety ordinance.

Ordinance 18-9 gave condo unit owners a $2,000 tax credit if they agreed to start the process by putting in fire safety improvements. Another law waived fees for city permits to install sprinkler systems in residential high-rises.

The Life Safety Evaluation requires buildings that opt out of installing sprinklers to make alternative fire safety improvements. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

City officials have long debated the need to upgrade safety measures in older high-rises, with a task force worrying about the expenses for condo owners while considering a mandatory fire sprinkler ordinance as early as 2005.

Marco Polo was one of the buildings surveyed at that time, with the sprinkler installation cost estimated at $2.4 million.

The actual cost turned out to be double that, according to Sue Savio, president of Insurance Associates, an independent agency that specializes in insurance for condominium associations and individual owners.

However, she said the installation of automatic sprinklers, which is expected to be completed by the end of this month, will lower the building’s liability costs and raise its value.

Though Savio understands the financial hardships that condo owners face, she urged owners to “bite the bullet” and install a sprinkler system.

The conflict is not unique to Honolulu. The deadly collapse of a residential tower in Surfside, Florida, last month also cast a spotlight on loopholes that allow condo associations to delay inspections and renovations in that state.

Phil Reller, whose mother and brother died in the Marco Polo fire, said he understands that the installation of fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings is a complex issue because of the costs, especially for elderly and other tenants with fixed incomes. 

Reller, president of the Community Kokua Foundation for Fire Safety and Recovery, said the nonprofit’s overall goal is to provide assistance to community members who have trouble coming up with the money to make their homes fire-safe. 

Reller said that the nonprofit is currently working on a strategic plan with community partners to bring stakeholders together and come up with solutions to help people protect their homes from fire.

“There’s no question in my mind that we can come together and come up with a common solution,” Reller said. “I don’t believe there’s anybody that’s saying, ‘I’d rather save money and worry about the cost of human life somewhere down the road.” 

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