Unsafe Buildings Place Tenants at Risk

Photo: Aran Nafisi-Movaghar, a UC Berkeley student, lives in one of the city's many 'soft-story' buildings, which are prone to earthquake damage.
Anne Marie Schuler/Staff
Aran Nafisi-Movaghar, a UC Berkeley student, lives in one of the city's many 'soft-story' buildings, which are prone to earthquake damage.

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Students living in possibly dangerous and poorly-constructed soft-story buildings may finally be made aware of the hazards they face following the Berkeley City Council's latest call for tenant notification Jan. 19.

Soft-story buildings, which usually exist over a parking garage or commercial space, are especially vulnerable to earthquake damage due to a weak division between the two lower floors. Many of the collapsed buildings in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake were classified as soft-stories.

"There is little disagreement that these structures are vulnerable to earthquakes," said Steve Mahin, director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center and a UC Berkeley professor of structural engineering.

A 2001 city survey identified roughly 5,000 housing units in soft-story buildings. Currently, Berkeley is home to 321 of these buildings, many of which are located in the campus area and are inhabited by students.

In Oct. 2005, the city council approved the Soft Story Ordinance, which called for an itinerary of potential soft-story buildings, mandatory tenant notification and a seismic

analysis submitted by the property owners to the city within two years of being labeled as a soft-story.

City officials and property owners characterized the ordinance as the first step toward the eventual mandatory retrofitting of these buildings.

But more than four years later, many properties have yet to be retrofitted, and a city itinerary last updated May 2009 lists 99 of the buildings as out of compliance with the ordinance, while 50 reports are still in review.

UC Berkeley student Aran Nafisi-Movaghar, who lives in a non-compliant soft-story building about four blocks from campus, said that he had not been informed of his building's possible danger and that no signs had been posted on the site. The ordinance requires both measures of property owners.

"I would definitely not live here if I had known," he said. "I would not want to be in an unsafe building. That's scary."

At its Jan. 19 meeting, the city council approved stricter enforcement recommendations for the ordinance and set April 1 as the final deadline for property owners to notify their tenants.

Sid Lakireddy, president of both Everest Properties and the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said many owners are still unaware of their obligation, even though the ordinance has been in effect for nearly five years.

"Any time there's anything new, it takes time for people to get up to speed," he said. "This is more and more on the radar every day."

Property owner Grace Hextrum, whose soft-story building is non-compliant, said the city's limited outreach and aid to property owners has enabled widespread non-compliance.

"I just found out today that I need to do that," she said Tuesday.

City officials-including Dan Lambert, Berkeley's former soft-story project manager-said that, when passed, the ordinance was a unique step in the two-phase plan to retrofit all soft-story buildings within the city.

But after the elimination of the project manager position due to budget cuts, progress on the plan slowed, as did the ordinance's enforcement.

"We were already making a pioneering move, didn't know much about it and didn't have resources to help the property owners," he said. "But we have a budget crunch now in Berkeley, and in Building and Safety, there's a big slowdown. We decided this program is outside our basic charge."

Even the city's initial categorization of the soft-story buildings has come under fire, and property owners cite the retrofit application and compliance procedure-which owners have called difficult to navigate, at best-as responsible for the program's stagnancy.

"We just hope that the city does make an effort to make it easier for people who (own non-compliant buildings) to get off the list," Lakireddy said.

But Lambert said even the city's most cursory evaluations drew attention to the buildings' possible danger to tenants in the case of an earthquake.

"It was really an engineer's best estimate from the sidewalk," Lambert said. "I'm not even sure that we had a precise definition. But what we wanted to show is (that) there certainly appeared to be some issues with those."

Lambert added that even though tenant notification has been spotty throughout the remaining soft-story buildings, the ordinance's passage inspired some property owners to renovate their buildings independently.

Still, while some property owners and city officials continue to wrangle over the process, many students living in non-compliant buildings remain unaware and uniformed of the hazards.

Given the red tape clouding the issue, Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes numerous soft-stories, said the future of the soft-story program is unclear, but the problem can no longer be ignored.

"My worry is once that paperwork is processed they'll say, 'We dealt with that, we don't have to think about that for a year,'" he said. "'I'm trying to figure out how we can get staff time to actually work on creating this, given that the state economy and the city's budget is very, very tight."

Tags: BUILDING SEISMIC CODE


Sarah Springfield covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]



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