Oakland requires landlords to retrofit ‘soft-story’ buildings

Landlords have six years to retrofit the buildings, which are prone to substantial earthquake damage.

To prevent hundreds of multi-story, wood-frame apartment buildings from collapsing as they did in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Oakland is requiring seismic upgrades of all those at risk in the next big shaker.

There are 1,479 such “soft-story” apartment buildings in the city constructed before 1991 — when the building code changed — that stand two to seven stories tall and contain five or more apartments, according to a 2008 analysis by the city and the Association of Bay Area Governments.Those buildings are supported by slim columns with either garages or storefronts underneath, and contain a total of 24,273 apartments.

With fears of the “big one” occurring any day now along the Hayward fault — which runs along northeast Oakland and south along Interstate 580 — the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Dec. 14 making the seismic retrofitting of soft-story buildings with more than five units mandatory, giving landlords four to six years to get their buildings up to code.

“A major earthquake along the Hayward fault is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when,” Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement released a week before the meeting. “As a city, we have a responsibility to put measures in place that will prevent injury and loss of life, and reduce displacement and recovery time in the aftermath of a major quake. This ordinance does all of those while also ensuring that we’re not placing an undue financial burden on property owners and tenants in our community.”

San Francisco passed a similar ordinance that went into effect in 2017; Berkeley and Fremont also require soft-story buildings to be seismically retrofitted. The Hayward council is scheduled to consider a similar measure in February.

In 2009, Oakland required soft-story building owners to gauge the potential earthquake damage that could occur. In the city’s 2015-2023 General Plan, officials called for the creation of a seismic safety retrofit program that would encourage retrofits through financial and procedural incentives.

Councilmember Dan Kalb — who introduced the ordinance — said city staff had been researching the risks of soft-story buildings and working toward the legislation for about four years. Though some California cities have required the buildings be retrofitted, others have not yet addressed the issue.

Seismic retrofits fall under the Oakland rent board’s definition of capital improvements, and thus up to 70 percent of the cost of may be passed on to the tenants. This ordinance requires that pass-through costs to tenants be dispersed over 25 years to prevent substantial rent hikes.

 

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