Homebuilders spend millions to fight safety for homeowners
Robert Faturechi reports in ProPublica:
In the Spring of 2012, U.S. homebuilders were celebrating a string of victories. In more than a dozen state capitals from Phoenix to Tallahassee, they had managed to block plans to require fire sprinklers in new homes.
Then came a threat from a place they thought was buttoned up: South Carolina.
It happened hours into a marathon session of the obscure council that sets state building codes. Some of the 15 council members who had gathered at the firefighters academy in the woods outside the state capital of Columbia already left for home. Late into the night, the state’s fire marshal, Adolf Zubia, somehow persuaded a majority of those remaining to support sprinklers by a vote of 6-3.
Zubia hadn’t really expected to prevail. Just as surprised was a spectator in the front row — Mark Nix, head of the state homebuilders association. The vote posed a threat to his industry. Adding sprinklers could cost builders thousands of dollars per home. California and Maryland already required residential sprinkler systems, but if South Carolina fell, other more conservative states might follow.
Nix locked eyes with the fire marshal at the council table. According to Zubia, Nix mouthed a warning: “You. Are. Fucked.”
While Nix denies saying that, Zubia instantly found himself in hot water. Before the meeting even adjourned, his phone buzzed with a text. He was to report to the office of Gov. Nikki Haley first thing in the morning.
There, Zubia says he was pushed to resign, the second state fire marshal forced out by the governor after advocating for sprinklers. And, soon, the code council reversed its decision.
Over the last eight years, U.S. homebuilders have spent millions of dollars on an extraordinary effort to block a safety improvement that the writers of the nation’s model building codes adamantly insist will save lives. The industry’s campaign, conducted far from the spotlight of Washington, shows how a well-financed lobby can shape state politics in public and behind the scenes.
The battle over sprinklers has consequences beyond politics. . .