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Tenants could pay part of earthquake retrofitting under proposal

A Canoga Park apartment building collapsed onto its carport in the 1994 Northridge quake.
(Rolando Otero, Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles City Council member wants to allow owners who seismically retrofit apartment buildings to pass on the costs of earthquake strengthening to tenants.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks said he wants the city to explore giving these apartment owners an exemption from the city’s rent control law to “incentivize retrofitting.”

Right now, only 50% of the cost of major apartment rehabilitation projects can be passed through to tenants. Parks wants city staff to evaluate passing through all of the costs to tenants but do it “over a reasonable period of time.”

Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers of older concrete and wooden “soft-story” buildings for years, but concerns about costs killed earlier efforts in L.A. to require retrofits of privately-owned buildings. Many owners say they shouldn’t have to pay for expensive fixes on their own.

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The council is already looking into a state bond measure that would help owners pay to seismically retrofit their buildings. But Parks said the city should first see if there’s a simpler solution.

“Before you start... looking to the state for funding, you should first look at your own city ordinances and see if there might be a simpler solution,” Parks said. “You don’t ask for bond money to keep your property in tiptop shape.”

FULL COVERAGE: California earthquakes

In San Francisco, officials waive rent control limits on rent increases when owners seismically retrofit their apartment buildings. Owners are allowed to pass along the retrofit costs to tenants, even those on rent control, over a 20-year period. Extremely low-income tenants, such as those on food stamps, are exempt from the rent increases.

The policy prompted owners to support San Francisco’s landmark earthquake safety ordinance last year that will require about 3,000 wooden apartment buildings to be retrofitted.

The cost of retrofitting a wooden apartment building in San Francisco is estimated to be about $60,000 to $130,000 per building.

Los Angeles is now considering proposals to identify quake vulnerable buildings in need of retrofit. The motions followed Times reports last year on concrete and wooden apartment buildings.

In October, The Times reported that by the most conservative estimate, as many as 50 of the more than 1,000 older concrete buildings in the city — those built before 1976 — would collapse in a major earthquake, exposing thousands to injury or death.

Concrete buildings may look strong, but many older concrete buildings are vulnerable to the sideways movement of a major earthquake because they don’t have enough steel reinforcement to hold columns in place. Experts say sorting out which present the greatest danger of injury and death to occupants is a daunting problem that will require building-by-building assessments by structural engineers.

Wooden “soft"-story structures often are built over carports and held up with slender columns, leaving the upper floors at risk of crashing into ground-floor apartments during shaking. The 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged or destroyed about 200 of these structures, and 16 people died in the Northridge Meadows apartment complex.

Despite the destruction from the 1994 earthquake, City Hall has paid little attention to how to help owners fund retrofits, Councilman Mitch Englander, who seconded Parks’ motion, has said.

This time is different, he said.

Englander said he’s also working with a lawmaker to introduce a bill in Sacramento that would give owners a tax break for seismic retrofits.

Parks’ motion will be discussed by a City Council committee.

Twitter: @ronlin | @RosannaXia


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