Berkeley needs improved housing-safety measures

CITY AFFAIRS: City council to review proposed safety measures following balcony collapse

On June 16, six students died and seven more were injured because of the collapse of a Downtown apartment building’s fifth-floor balcony. To the families of the victims, we offer our deepest sympathies, and to those students still recovering, we offer our prayers and best wishes.

In the wake of this tragedy, Berkeley City Council is set to consider three measures designed to prevent similar building malfunctions from occurring. The proposals, which will be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, primarily recommend building inspections every five years, the adoption of steel-reinforced beams in new balconies and the mandatory disclosure of a balcony’s condition in addition to signage specifying a balcony’s weight capacity.

We are glad that the city has been prompted by this catastrophe to take action, but the proposed changes only skim the surface of problems that could lead to similar events. For example, the city manager recommends the routine inspection of weather-exposed elements. Such an inspection, though a positive measure, should extend beyond exterior elements of the building, and the proposal should explicitly call for the review of the most dangerous or potentially faulty structural aspects of a property, both interior and exterior.

Additionally, the proposals should specify that periodic official inspections should be supplemented by more frequent inspections initiated by the property owner. These inspections would be beneficial in identifying problems such as dry rot — the primary cause of the June 16 balcony collapse — which can develop and cause damage in as little as a year.

Another weak aspect of the proposed changes is the insufficiency with which the proposals address the issue of balconies on existing buildings. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin has proposed that steel reinforcements be implemented in all balcony construction, but this would apply only to new buildings.

The last proposed building code addition — requiring property owners to disclose whether the building has wooden cantilevered balconies without steel reinforcement and implementing signage detailing a balcony’s maximum weight capacity — would improve the public’s safety. It would not, however, necessarily prevent events like the June 16 balcony collapse, which was due to a flaw in the structure.

Although this would be without legal precedence, any changes to the city’s building code should also be directly applicable not only to future buildings but to existing buildings. Inspections, especially, should be mandatory for all buildings.

Uncomfortable and often unsafe housing conditions seem to be a prominent problem for students, many of whom lack the experience and financial resources to invest in quality housing. In light of this fact, the city must take this opportunity to update the building code, prioritizing quality over speed and quantity, and to implement changes that will foresee and potentially prevent such avoidable tragedies from ever repeating.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

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