City officials discuss need to retrofit earthquake-prone buildings

Ayon Kabir/Staff
An earthquake warning sign at an apartment building on Dwight Way.

More than 14,000 Berkeley residents could be displaced if a major earthquake hits the Hayward fault line, and right now, there is a 62 percent chance there will be an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater by 2032 in the Bay Area, according to the city website.

Berkeley residents would be hit hard by an earthquake because soft story buildings — which are especially vulnerable to collapse during earthquakes — make up a disproportionate percentage of housing in the city. At the 4×4 Joint Committee on Housing meeting Thursday, Berkeley City Council members and Rent Stabilization Board commissioners tried to revamp efforts to start the second phase of the Soft Story Ordinance, which would force owners to retrofit their buildings. The second phase was planned to begin in 2007.

The council has faced numerous challenges when it comes to enforcing phase one of the 2005 ordinance, which includes two parts — having property owners identify seismic weaknesses and submit a plan to fix those weaknesses, as well as posting a sign in front of their building to notify tenants.

While 66 out of the 269 landlords who own soft story buildings — each of which has about 10 units — have retrofitted their buildings on their own, 117 owners have submitted a plan but have not yet begun retrofitting, and 86 owners have done nothing at all, according to Lief Bursell, the city’s assistant planner.

Although some committee members wanted to focus on better enforcing phase one, most urged the group to start to move on toward phase two, actually retrofitting the buildings.

“What are we trying to do here?” said Lisa Stephens, rent board chairperson, at the meeting. “Is the goal to have a sign on the building or to have the building changed? What’s more important: letting people know that they are in an unsafe building or if the building will fall if there’s an earthquake?”

Eventually, all members agreed to start working on plans for a phase two ordinance that would actually force the remaining 203 owners who have not yet retrofitted their buildings to do so.

“Many owners that did the retrofitting already, did it because they thought they were going to follow up with a mandatory ordinance,” said Stephen Barton, the board’s deputy director.

However, the City Council does not currently have the funds or resources to instigate a new ordinance or pay an employee to enforce the ordinance, Barton said. Also, many property owners may not be able to afford a retrofit, which is estimated to cost $10,000.

“You have a situation where half the owners haven’t complied with the ordinance, so what’s the best way of enforcement?” said rent board Commissioner Jay Kelekian.

They also considered changing the law so tenants who are in these buildings have the option of breaking the lease or petitioning for a rent decrease.

“We need to give people more options,” Kelekian said. “Right now, we can send people letters telling them that they live in a soft story building, but if you’re a student studying for finals, are you really going to pack up and leave? I mean, these are students’ lives we are talking about.”