Fixing Oakland’s Death Traps 

After years of delay, the city is finally taking action to retrofit thousands of seismically unsafe soft-story apartments.

click to enlarge Under the new law, property owners must retrofit soft-story buildings. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • Under the new law, property owners must retrofit soft-story buildings.

When the next big earthquake strikes the Hayward fault, up to 22,000 “soft-story” apartment units in Oakland may flatten like pancakes, potentially causing hundreds of deaths and unprecedented displacement. The Town would never be the same.

City officials mulled over this problem for years but took little-to-no action, even as surrounding cities did so. San Francisco, Berkeley, Alameda, Fremont, and San Leandro have all mandated the retrofitting of unsafe apartments. Now, Oakland is finally addressing the issue, too.

Last week, the Oakland City Council voted to move forward with an ordinance that requires landlords to seismically retrofit the most dangerous soft-story apartment and condo buildings. Soft-story structures lack adequate foundation support, most typically because they were built over garages or commercial uses. Experts say they’re the most likely to collapse in a strong earthquake.

“The bottom line is that we want to save lives and reduce red-tag buildings and therefore displacement,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb of North Oakland, who has pushed for legislation on soft-story buildings for several years. “We’re not going to eliminate the damage a major earthquake will cause, but we can significantly reduce it.”

The city plans to kick off a six-year process: first, by sending a notice to owners of buildings identified in a 2008 screening evaluation, which found 24,273 units in 1,479 multiunit residential buildings as being especially vulnerable to damage or collapse.

Kalb’s ordinance, which was co-sponsored by Mayor Libby Schaaf, targets wood-framed residential buildings that have five or more units, were built before 1991, and have parking or commercial uses on the ground floor and lack adequate strength to withstand an earthquake. They are largely concentrated near Lake Merritt and in West Oakland but are spread throughout the city.



Landlords who believe their buildings don’t need to be lawfully retrofitted would have a year to prove their case. But for buildings that are mandated, owners will have four to six years to perform the structural evaluation and complete the needed work, depending on which of three tiers they fall into (based on occupancy numbers).

One of the biggest setbacks in addressing the issue came down to the cost to get the job done — and who would pay for it. Retrofits for these types of buildings are estimated to cost about $60,000 to $130,000 per building, depending on the size and amount of work needed.

Under Kalb’s legislation, the responsibility falls on property owners, but because the work is considered “capital improvement,” landlords could — under current city law — pass through up to 70 percent of costs to tenants over a 25-year period.

The plan, which came as a result of evaluating what has worked in other cities and hearing from concerned parties, is designed to make it possible for property owners to finance repairs while attempting to mitigate the impact on tenants. The end result is an ordinance that received widespread support, with tenants, owners, engineers, and experts applauding the measure at the recent city council meeting.

James Vann, co-founder of the Oakland Tenants Union, said the group made several requests throughout the process — like requiring that city officials notify tenants rather than relying on owners to do so — and, for the most part, feels that their concerns were taken into account.

“We’re largely OK with this ordinance,” he said. “We made a number of demands that have been incorporated to make sure to reduce the impact on tenants.”

Most owners will need to get a loan to complete the retrofit. And in order to increase rents, they must go through the Oakland rent board and provide proof of all costs and grants received.

Most of the work would be completed on lower levels — parking garages and lobbies — so city officials don’t expect many residents to be displaced by the construction, though if they were, tenants would be entitled to relocation payments to cover temporary housing.

Tom C. Hui, director of San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection, said that looking at the initial list of 5,000 buildings that needed work in San Francisco was overwhelming at first, but the vast majority have complied. “I was nervous with that many buildings, but outreach efforts were huge, and we’re getting it done,” said Hui, who started in the department the day before the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and became director the year before San Francisco’s mandated soft-story program went into effect in 2013. Numerous soft-story apartment buildings collapsed in San Francisco’s Marina district during the ’89 quake.

Under San Francisco’s soft-story program, the city placed buildings into tiers based on occupancy numbers, each with individual deadlines. Each of the four deadlines to submit work plans have passed, and the soft-story work is supposed to be finished in 2020. Overall, out of 4,901 buildings, just 365 have failed to submit their plans.

San Francisco handles noncompliance by first sending landlords a warning letter, and if they don’t follow through, a notice is posted on the building. Eventually, if still no action is taken, the city attorney can take up the case. Oakland’s ordinance also includes procedures in case of noncompliance, including fines, penalties, and posted notices.

“The goal isn’t to fine landlords — it’s to work with them so they actually get it done,” Hui said.

Now that the Oakland ordinance is going into effect, it begs the question about why it took so long for the city to address this threat while other cities did so earlier?

Kalb, who has been on the Oakland City Council for six years, first took up this issue in 2014: creating a working group with stakeholders, getting input from seismic experts, and even drafting an ordinance. But the plan was put on hold as a slew of other issues consumed city officials’ energy, including housing pressures and tenant protections.

“It got put on the back burner,” Kalb said. “It’s the kind of thing most everyone understands we should do, but because it’s in the future, there’s a tendency to just kick it down the road and say ‘We’ll get to it eventually.’”

Kalb said he’s pleased that the ordinance is finally moving forward and, like everyone, hopes a major earthquake doesn’t strike before the work is done. After this initial project is complete, Kalb would also like to look at smaller, two- to four-unit buildings, as well as those made of concrete, and to create a better emergency response plan for the city at large. “If we don’t prepare, we’re going to have our own Katrina here,” Kalb said. “No one disagrees with that.”

This report was originally published by our sister publication, Oakland Magazine. 

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