Editorial: A road map to a more earthquake-safe L.A.


The Los Angeles City Council on Friday will consider an ambitious proposal to mandate the retrofitting of as many as 15,000 older buildings that are vulnerable to collapse in a catastrophic earthquake. The measure, initially proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, is potentially costly for property owners, but it could mean the difference between people surviving or dying in a major temblor. The council should approve it.

For decades, officials have known that “soft story” wood buildings, often supported on skinny columns over carports, could collapse in a major quake. That’s what happened in the 1994 Northridge earthquake when upper floors of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex pancaked onto lower floors, killing 16 people. In addition, brittle concrete columns can snap like chalk unless reinforced with steel bars. Concrete buildings have collapsed in both the Sylmar and Northridge earthquakes.

The building codes for new wood and concrete construction were strengthened in the late 1970s, but efforts to require retrofitting of older buildings have been rebuffed for decades. That should change with this latest aggressive push by Garcetti and the council, which has been helped by the willingness of both tenant and landlord groups to support a mandate.


The new ordinance would give owners of about 13,500 older wood buildings seven years to do structural analyses and, if necessary, retrofitting. Owners of some 1,500 older concrete buildings would have 25 years to do the retrofitting. Single-family homes and duplexes would be exempted, as would wooden triplexes.

Paying for this work may be a challenge, costing tens of thousands of dollars for wood buildings and, possibly, millions for taller concrete buildings. Neither property owners nor tenants, all of whom reap the benefits of safer buildings, should have to bear the entire expense. According to current law, however, the cost of mandatory rehabilitation could be completely recovered through rent increases. That is an unfair burden on tenants in these structures, the overwhelming majority of which are rent-controlled apartment buildings. If they wanted to move, there would be few choices in a city starved for available and affordable housing.

Councilman Gil Cedillo, who chairs the council’s housing committee, has promised for months that the costs will not be passed on 100% to renters. He should keep that promise. Soon after it approves the new retrofitting mandate, the council should enact a companion ordinance that limits the amount of the cost that landlords can pass on to their tenants.

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