Soft Story Policy Update May Be Ahead

Photo: Jose Marquez and Heather Graviet stand in front of their apartment building at 2538 Durant Ave., which has been declared seismically unsafe by the city's Soft Story Ordinance.
Sean Goebel/Photo
Jose Marquez and Heather Graviet stand in front of their apartment building at 2538 Durant Ave., which has been declared seismically unsafe by the city's Soft Story Ordinance.

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An update to the city of Berkeley's long-unenforced Soft Story Ordinance, which requires owners of earthquake-vulnerable buildings to inform tenants of building weaknesses, will come before members of the Berkeley City Council Tuesday night, as council and community members hope to strengthen the program.

The ordinance was created in 2005 to address the city's earlier surveys indicating that up to 5,000 residential units in the city were located in soft story buildings. These structures feature an open ground floor, usually used for parking, and are more likely to collapse in the event of an earthquake.

Under the ordinance, building owners are required to notify their tenants of the structure's weaknesses both in writing and by posting a warning sign on the building. Owners are also required to complete a seismic engineering evaluation within two years of their building being classified as a soft story by the city and listed in its online inventory.

Since its approval by the council, implementation of the ordinance has met with some difficulty - including budget limitations, personnel cuts and the failure of some building owners to cooperate - and results have been mixed, according to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.

Dan Marks, the city's director of planning and development, said a little over 13 percent of the total inventory of 270 buildings have not yet submitted building evaluations, while 25 percent have been voluntarily retrofitted. Just over 50 percent of soft story property owners have provided some notification to their tenants to date, he said.

While Councilmember Darryl Moore said the program has solicited "significant improvements," Arreguin expressed frustration at the tedious progress seen overall by the program.

"I'm frustrated we've had this law on the books and owners aren't following the law," he said. "We need to make sure owners follow the law."

In the meantime, these buildings pose a significant risk to tenants, and Steve Mahin, director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center and UC Berkeley professor of structural engineering, said that many buildings that collapsed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake were soft stories.

"These are known hazardous buildings that could collapse," he said.

Student tenants are considered to be the main demographic affected by soft story buildings, and the inventory indicates that many are located on Southside and Downtown.

Still, UC Berkeley senior Jose Marquez said he felt safe despite being made aware that his building is listed as a soft story structure by the property owner and is therefore vulnerable during an earthquake. He added that he had noticed warning signs posted in compliance with the ordinance on the premises when he moved in.

At the meeting, Arreguin and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli plan to introduce phase two of the program, which involves a multistep process of developing a mandatory soft story policy whereby building owners will have to retrofit all soft stories within the city, according to Arreguin.

City staff members have begun sending out warning letters to owners who are still not in compliance with the ordinance, giving them a month or two to complete the requirement of tenant notification and submit a building report by an engineer. A time frame for mandatory building retrofitting will then be established by the council, Arreguin said.

Incentives may also be created to help owners deal with the financial burden of renovation. Jill Martinucci, legislative assistant to Capitelli, listed waiving permit fees and setting up rolling loan funds as potential aids for landlords, while Moore said the city needs to "put some carrots in place to incentivize landlords."

Arreguin said in addition to incentives, specific penalties must also be developed to ensure that owners know "there are consequences" in failing to meet ordinance standards.

"Not only are we talking about the loss of housing, we're talking about the loss of lives," he said.


Contact Nina Brown at [email protected]

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