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L.A. to explore helping property owners pay for earthquake retrofitting repairs

A neighbor looks over the fence at damage to a two-story home following an earthquake in Napa County.
(Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles City Council committee agreed this week to explore ways of helping property owners finance costly seismic retrofits required by law in roughly 15,000 buildings.

The city passed an ordinance in 2015 requiring the retrofitting, but the high upfront costs can cause enormous financial strain on property owners and could prevent its implementation, according to a motion introduced by Councilman Mitchell Englander and approved Monday by the Budget and Finance Committee.

Retrofitting can cost upward of $130,000 for wood-frame buildings and millions of dollars for larger concrete structures. The city does have programs that focus on cost recovery for owners, but there are no incentives to provide upfront financial assistance, according to the motion.

When Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the 2015 ordinance into law, it gave Los Angeles the nation’s strongest earthquake-safety rules. The law applies to roughly 15,000 older buildings considered vulnerable in major earthquakes, including 13,500 wood-framed “soft-story’” buildings with weak lower floors, such as multistory apartments with tuck-under parking spaces, and an estimated 1,500 vulnerable concrete buildings.

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Under the ordinance, seismic retrofits of wooden structures must occur within seven years, and retrofits of concrete buildings within 25 years, with certain benchmarks to be met along the way.

The ordinance targets buildings constructed prior to the enactment of seismic building standards, which include pre-1978 soft-story wooden buildings and concrete buildings with permits dating back to before Jan. 13, 1977.

Once the work is complete, an owner can recover 50% of the cost through the city’s Seismic Retrofit Program. But if the work cannot be completed within the time frame, the building must be demolished, which could affect the city’s effort to maintain as much of its affordable housing as possible at a time of rising homelessness and spikes in the cost of renting or owning a home.

A possible source of funding for the program could be the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, according to the motion. The fund has been depleted in recent years by federal cuts, but it could benefit from a windfall by next year as a result of the City Council and Garcetti’s signing off late last year on a linkage fee for developers that is predicted to generate about $100 million annually for the fund.


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