UC Berkeley senior Claire Bui was eating lunch at her kitchen table last Thursday afternoon when the room began to rattle.
“Everything was shaking, and it freaked me out,” Bui said. “I’m from the East Coast, so I’m not used to these types of things. When we signed the lease, our landlord encouraged us to get renter’s insurance since this was an old building.”
Bui is one of the thousands of Berkeley residents living in the city’s soft story buildings, which would crumble into the floor below them if an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or higher were to hit the Bay Area. In the wake of the eight earthquakes that hit Berkeley over the past week, residents who live in soft story buildings are increasingly concerned that they could be displaced without sufficient financial support to pay for an alternate living situation.
Though the city has attempted to enact legislation like the revised Relocation Ordinance, which would require landlords to provide financial assistance to tenants who are forced to relocate due to housing damages and unavoidable housing repairs, the city has yet to take major strides in preparing for disasters in earthquake-prone residential units.
The city’s Housing Advisory Commission Chair Vincent Casalaina said the revised ordinance would further discriminate against landlords.
“Though I firmly believe the current relocation ordinance needs to be rewritten, (the revised ordinance) was discriminatory,” Casalaina said. “It’s taken several years to redo (the ordinance), so this can hardly be described as rushing, but there are pieces missing out of this.”
At its Oct. 6 meeting, the commission voted to pass the ordinance off to the Berkeley City Council, which postponed action on the revised ordinance at its Oct. 11 meeting, after the council received additional proposed amendments from city staff.
Since the revised ordinance was first brought to the council Sept. 27, council members have raised several issues, including the lack of language in the revised version that specifies how financial assistance would be given to tenants in the event of an earthquake.
The city also enacted the first phase of the Soft Story Ordinance in 2005, which requires owners to notify tenants that they live in a soft story building, while the second phase that was originally planned to go into effect in 2007 has not yet been enacted.
The city has struggled to implement the second phase of the ordinance, which requires landlords to spend their own money to retrofit their buildings. So far, only 66 out of the 269 landlords who own soft story buildings in the city have retrofitted — a statistic that Casalaina said is reflective of the fact that there is no monetary incentive for landlords to make seismic retrofits on their own.
The council’s suggestion to include language specifying financial support in the case of an earthquake for voluntary seismic retrofits will be discussed at the next Rent Stabilization Board meeting, said rent board Commissioner Jesse Townley.
Townley said that although the soft story ordinance and the relocation ordinance would complement each other since the two encourage tenants to move out when landlords are making repairs, he said the relocation ordinance needs to be clearer regarding regulations for residential property owners and residents.
“It takes 30 days for relocation, and (tenants) are basically evicted and can’t go back since property owners don’t have to let them back,” Townley said. “When we have some major renovation like soft story renovation, we want them to take time … which may lead to people getting evicted.”
As for Bui and fellow UC Berkeley students, they do not want to be left in the dust if a big earthquake does demolish their homes, leaving them with only a sign on the outside of their buildings notifying them they had lived in a soft story residence with no retrofits.
“The city could certainly be prepared better — especially with the soft story ordinance, since many damages are from secondary effects if the building collapses,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “The problem is that the big earthquakes don’t happen often enough — they are generational.”
The map above shows an inventory of potentially hazardous soft story buildings in the city of Berkeley as of March 21, 2011.
The green markers indicate that the building has been retrofitted and the blue markers indicate the building has not yet been retrofitted.
Source: City of Berkeley Soft Story Program