Building earthquake safety ordinance sees lack of compliance, enforcement

Mingxi Zheng/Staff

When Gladys Ray Diggs and her family moved into their Berkeley apartment in 2006, she noticed that her bedroom and her son’s bedroom were located above a parking garage, not thinking that was too unusual for Berkeley apartments.

But it is that fact alone that characterizes her apartment as a soft story building — structures that have garages, commercial spaces or other openings in places where a shear wall, for support, would normally be built.

If a 6.7 magnitude or greater earthquake were to occur in Berkeley — which stands at a 63 percent chance over the next 30 years, according to 2008 U.S. Geological Survey study — it is very possible that the rooms in her apartment, where her son sleeps, would crash into the garage below.

“If I had known about this when I moved in, I would have most definitely moved somewhere else,” Diggs said. “I will be looking for another place.”

In 2005, the city passed an ordinance mandating that property owners put up a sign notifying tenants that they live in a soft story building and submit a retrofit plan to the city. The problem is that many property owners, including Diggs’s landlord, have ignored the ordinance.

The city has not been able to force a total of 86 property owners — of the 269 who collectively own about 860 units in the city — to comply, leaving many residents unaware that they live in hazardous buildings.

Even if owners follow the ordinance, the city does not require them to retrofit their buildings because it never implemented phase two of the soft story program, which would have required mandatory retrofits starting in 2007.

“You have to spend a fair amount of money on just estimates for retrofitting,” said property owner Peter Seyranian, who has notified tenants of his building’s soft story status but has not gone forward with a retrofit. “It definitely makes us say, why do anything until something is required?”

Sixty-six property owners have gone ahead with the retrofit phase, though many did so under the impression that the city would implement the second phase of the ordinance, according to Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner Jesse Townley.

Lack of city staff and funding have prevented the city from enforcing the current ordinance, which fines owners who are not in compliance between $500 and $1,000 — money that the city has generally failed to collect.

“There’s no reason to have an ordinance and not have people follow though on it,” said Mayor Tom Bates.

In moving forward to finally implement the second phase of the ordinance, the city faces the same problem. At minimum, it would cost $250,000 to hire a new staff member who would write and enforce the new ordinance, which would require retrofits, according to Councilmember  Laurie Capitelli.

“Oftentimes, projects that are designed to make profit for the city, such as the extending of 4th Street, get top priority,” Townley said. “How many of those people’s lives are worth $250,000 a year?”

Bates said there are concerns that owners will not be able to afford retrofits — which would cost on average $11,000 per unit — and that the costs of retrofits would drive up the cost of rent for low-income housing, despite a rent board report released in April 2010 that says property owners should be able to afford retrofits without raising rent.

At last Thursday’s 4×4 Joint Committee on Housing meeting, rent board commissioners and City Council members talked about possible ways to implement the second phase, while recognizing the high costs of retrofits.

“It’s fair to say that in the past, future concerns have held us back,” Capitelli said. “(At the meeting), it was rather simple but brilliant to say, let’s go ahead with phase two and then see how many hardship cases there are.”

Even if the city acts on this fairly quickly, it will take years for the majority of owners to retrofit.  Once phase two is implemented, owners will have at least three years to complete the retrofit before facing any sort of consequences, according to Capitelli.

“This is not something frivolous … This is blood and guts,” Townley said. “I feel like I have to be really graphic sometimes to wake people up. What we are talking about is severed limbs, bashed-in brains and stocks, dead children.”

A building near campus is covered under the soft-story ordinance.

Image Courtesy: Danielle Lee of The Daily Californian