When retrofitting L.A. for earthquakes, keep renters in mind

L.A. needs to keep cost to renters in mind in earthquake retrofitting

Mayor Eric Garcetti has unveiled a sweeping plan to fortify the city in the (inevitable) event of a major earthquake, mandating the retrofitting of "soft story" wood buildings as well as brittle concrete structures built before codes were strengthened in the late 1970s. The plan also seeks to protect L.A.'s infrastructure from devastation by replacing aged water pipes with seismically resilient ones, beefing up water storage, strengthening cellphone towers and forging agreements with telecommunications providers to share broadband services.

The plan is one of the most extensive ever proposed by a municipal government in California, and Garcetti — who tapped earthquake scientist Lucy Jones to lead the research task force behind the proposal — should be commended for putting it forward. Earthquake retrofitting is a costly and lengthy process, but as Garcetti said, "when it comes to the San Andreas Fault, we cannot afford to be complacent." As a matter of fact, the three aqueducts that together supply the city with 88% of its water cross the San Andreas Fault 32 times.

The retrofitting proposal will need the City Council's approval — and deserves to get it. In a few months, the city will have finished its review of soft story wood buildings that need retrofitting and the mayor is recommending that property owners with structures on the list be given five years to get the work done. The proposal would also set a five-year window to identify brittle concrete buildings in need of retrofitting and would then give owners a generous 25 years to do that more complicated retrofitting.

Under the mayor's plan, landlords of rent-controlled buildings (which most of these will be) would be allowed to pass on the retrofitting costs to tenants. That is in line with the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which allows landlords to charge tenants for essential rehabilitation work as long as they spread out the costs over five years and do not charge more than $75 extra per month or 10% of the current rent, whichever is lower. If the costs can't be covered in that five-year period, the time over which the tenants pay can be extended.

However, the city needs to keep in mind how expensive these retrofittings are and how burdened many renters in L.A. — one of the nation's costliest rental markets — already are. If necessary, the city should consider holding down the monthly increases by extending the period of time over which tenants are paying back the costs. The city should definitely look for ways to help lower income tenants shoulder the burden of the extra rent, as San Francisco is doing with its mandatory retrofitting ordinance.

But, bottom line is these buildings must be retrofitted, and everyone must share in the cost.

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