The city of Los Angeles is finally getting serious about retrofitting the soft-story wood frame apartment buildings and the brittle concrete ones that are at risk of collapsing during a substantial earthquake. The soft-story Northridge Meadows apartment complex collapsed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, killing 16 people. A concrete building that doesn't have adequate steel reinforcement can crumble to the ground, as some did in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, killing dozens.
The first step is to take an inventory of the 29,000 apartment buildings with five or more units that were built before 1978, when the building code was changed to require stronger wood frame buildings. (The code governing concrete buildings got tougher in 1976.) The second step will be the analysis of those buildings by structural experts to see if they need retrofitting. Not all of them will.
The third step is the most difficult: deciding who pays for the work that needs to be done. Landlords? Tenants? Taxpayers? It may be premature to make this decision before the city has a better sense of the magnitude and overall cost of the problem. But even if it can't yet divvy up the costs, that's not a reason to put off the process of identifying what needs to be retrofitted.
That's essentially what Santa Monica is doing. Officials there have ordered structural inspections of wood frame, concrete and vulnerable steel frame buildings. But until they know whether several dozen or several hundred buildings will need retrofitting, they will not decide how it should be financed, according to Santa Monica Building Officer Ron Takiguchi.
Under L.A.'s rent control law, property owners may pass on 100% of the cost of "essential" rehabilitation work to tenants. A mandatory order from the city to retrofit a building would certainly fall into that category. The law says the cost should be spread over five years (or more) and that the monthly extra on the rent may not exceed $75. Councilman Bernard C. Parks favors this pass-through, arguing that many mom-and-pop landlords of small buildings are as cash-strapped as their tenants, if not more so. But the cost of retrofitting can vary dramatically — from several thousand dollars to more than $100,000 — depending on the size of the building and the severity of the problem.
San Francisco has a similar pass-through provision in its rent control ordinance. City officials decided to leave it in place when they approved a law ordering mandatory retrofitting of all wood soft-story apartment buildings. But they also made it easier for low-income tenants to get waivers from paying the increase. And Mayor Edwin Lee has aggressively urged banks to offer low-interest rate loans to property owners who must retrofit.
Those are smart moves, but they may not provide sufficient protection for Los Angeles tenants, 58% of whom are paying more than 30% of their income in rent and 31% of whom are paying more than half their income in rent. Only very low income residents would probably qualify for a waiver.
The cost of retrofitting should not fall on any one group. This work would be done to keep buildings from collapsing in a substantial earthquake and killing people — and to protect them from catastrophic damage that could leave them uninhabitable for months, if not forever. Protecting buildings serves the interests of tenants, property owners and the city as a whole. It is a matter of public safety. L.A.'s elected officials need to find ways to spread the burden of the cost.
One obvious and important part of the solution is for government to get deeply involved in the financing of the work. City officials should try to find ways to provide low-interest financing for landlords undertaking retrofitting projects, and should look closely at some of the approaches San Francisco has taken. Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks), working with Councilman Mitch Englander, has introduced a bill to create a tax credit for retrofitting for landlords across the state. It's not clear at this point how much tax revenue the state could afford to give up, or how much money property owners will need.