Survey finds some Berkeley buildings do not meet earthquake safety requirements

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Andrew Kuo/Senior Staff

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According to findings released last Monday from an annual independent survey, many “soft-story” buildings in Berkeley continue to not meet seismic safety standards designated by city ordinance.

The results were gathered by a group of concerned locals and students led by Igor Tregub, a commissioner on the Berkeley Rent Board. For the past three years, independently of the city, Tregub and his team have been investigating more than 200 buildings in Berkeley that are classified as soft-story buildings — wooden-frame structures with five or more units featuring unequal levels of earthquake resistance on certain floors.

Many of these soft-story buildings house students while also providing spaces for ground-floor businesses and parking garages. Unless retrofitted, soft-story buildings are usually more vulnerable to earthquakes and prone to collapse.

“We’re seeing more instances of compliance now than we did in the past two years, but only 10 of 20 buildings we inspected followed regulations, which is very troubling,” Tregub said. The results from the Seismic Compliance survey also revealed that none of the tenants living in the 20 buildings surveyed knew of their home’s inherent instability.

While some soft-story building owners have retrofitted their property, many others need financial assistance to do so, and some landlords are unaware of the need for earthquake retrofitting in their own buildings.

“Very few students actually know about the seismic dangers in Berkeley,” said Denim Ohmit, a former local affairs intern in the ASUC External Affairs Vice President’s office who helped rally participants and survey buildings. “A lot of the tenants we were notifying were unknowing students.”

Students and concerned citizens gathered for a Seismic Day of Action on March 20 to conduct inspections of soft-story buildings and determine whether building owners had cooperated with the Berkeley Soft Story Ordinance of 2005. Phase I of the ordinance requires owners of certain seismically unstable buildings to inform their tenants of inherent risks and to place informative signs within five feet of all major entrances.

But according to both Tregub’s seismic compliance report and the Berkeley Property Owners Association, the responsibility to effectively enforce the Soft Story Ordinance ultimately falls on the city of Berkeley.

“Since the ordinance was passed, the city has always had the legal standing to enforce these laws, but they’ve decided to prioritize and budget themselves towards other interests,” said Asa Dodsworth, a commissioner for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.

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Sid Lakireddy, president of the BPOA, attributes a lack of awareness of both tenants and landlords to poor communication between the city of Berkeley and building owners.

“There’s definitely a lack of personalized outreach to landlords,” Lakireddy said, noting that significant language and age barriers exist between tenants, city officials and many owners of the soft-story buildings in question. “But the ordinance is completely fair — it’s how we’re eventually going to raise awareness and get people to seismically retrofit these properties.”

Phase II of the Soft Story Ordinance will attempt to acquire funding from the city to seismically retrofit soft-story buildings, but according to Tregub’s report, progress toward this phase has been at a standstill for the past seven years.

“The city has the necessary equipment and expertise to do this, but due to the lack of priority and budgeting, seismic retrofitting has been long delayed,” Tregub said.

Contact Andrew Dickey at [email protected].