Bills to increase balcony safety pass California State Legislature

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Alvin Wu/File

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Two California State Senate bills focused on construction reform — spurred by the 2015 balcony collapse that killed six people in Berkeley — passed the Legislature in August and await Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

The bills, co-authored by state Sens. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, aim to increase safety of structures such as balconies or decks in multifamily residences, such as apartment buildings.

Six students were killed in the 2015 collapse — five Irish students studying abroad and one student from Rohnert Park, California — and seven others were injured. The Contractors State License Board, or CSLB, determined that poor construction methods and dry rot caused the collapse.

“This is a serious issue that has killed people throughout the state,” Hill said in an August address to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. “We can prevent these tragedies with reasonable statewide inspection and repair standards.”

SB 721 would require 15 percent of California balconies and decks to be inspected every six years at the owner’s expense. SB 1465 would require contractors to report settlements more than $1 million to the CSLB when they involve construction defects on multifamily residences.

The lead contractor of the apartment building, Segue Construction Inc., had paid $26.5 million in settlements for construction defects in its buildings during the three years before the balcony collapse.

At the time, companies were not required to report such settlements to the CSLB. In 2016, Brown signed a state Senate bill that aimed to close regulatory gaps and directed the CSLB to study ways to prevent future accidents.

Jackie Donohoe, whose 22-year-old daughter Ashley Donohoe and 21-year-old niece Olivia Burke died in the balcony collapse, has urged members of the California Legislature to support the bills.

This could have been any (of) your college-age kids on that balcony that night,” Donohoe said in June 2015 to the state Senate Appropriations Committee. “The Irish parents sent these sons and daughters to America … and California sent five coffins back home.”

During the months after the balcony collapse, the city of Berkeley enacted amendments to housing codes, requiring inspections of weather-exposed structures every three years. Of the 2,176 properties surveyed in 2016, 18 percent required corrective work, according to the report.

Our law firm spoke directly to the city of Berkeley to express the Donohoe family’s concerns regarding balcony safety in Berkeley, and the city took action immediately,” said the Donohoe family’s attorney, Eustace de Saint Phalle, in a press release. “Without question, the city of Berkeley’s actions and changes to its city codes have prevented other tragedies.”

Brown has until Sept. 30 to either sign or veto SB 721 and SB 1465. If he does not address them by this deadline, they will become law.

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.