Oakland City Council members are in the final stages of deciding whether to pass a new law that would require the owners of certain apartment buildings to seismically retrofit their properties.
The rule would apply to wood-frame residences with five or more units with weak lower stories built before 1991. These soft-story buildings are particularly vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake.
KQED spoke about the proposal with Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, its co-sponsor alongside Mayor Libby Schaaf. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Please summarize the seismic retrofitting proposal. What does it seek to do?
We have many apartment buildings that are at risk of collapse in the event of a major earthquake. And we know a major earthquake in the Bay Area is not a matter of "if," it's a matter of "when." We have an obligation to protect the people living in those buildings from displacement. This new law would require the owners of soft-story apartment buildings to seismically retrofit their buildings so they're safer. That would not only protect lives, but also reduce the likelihood that people will be displaced when the earthquake happens.
How many units are we talking about?
There are anywhere between 1,600 to 2,000 of these buildings in Oakland containing somewhere between 21,000 to 25,000 units.
San Francisco and Berkeley already have mandated seismic retrofitting for some soft-story apartment buildings. What's taken Oakland so long to get around to doing this?
Oakland has been working on this for a few years. We've addressed people's concerns and now we're going to get it done. Also, just as San Francisco and Berkley's programs are winding down, Oakland now has all these trained seismic engineers and construction specialists who know how to do this work and are looking for more work. So it works just right, in terms of the availability of the experts to do the work, by having not all cities do it at exactly the same time.
What kind of financial and other assistance will you be providing to owners and renters affected by the retrofitting?
Many property owners will have to take out some kind of loan to do this. We are looking to FEMA to provide grants to help subsidize some of the costs for those who need it. The state has a program to provide loan guarantees for those property owners who can't necessarily get a loan on their own. And we're looking for other sources. There will be a shared cost because it's a capital expense.
As is the case with most other cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, a portion of those costs will be passed along to renters. We want to make sure renters are not displaced because we're doing this work. And so we're making sure that any rent increase they get because of this is very nominal and spread out over 25 years.
When will Oakland City Council reach a decision on this proposal?
It went through the committee twice and had its first reading at the full council this week. As with every ordinance, a second reading is required. And that will happen sometime in mid-January.
Say this gets approved in January. How much time will owners get to comply with the new law?
We're looking at a three- to six-year process. That's a pretty tight timeline, but we think it's doable. And we do have a provision in the law that allows people to apply for a hardship one-year extension.
Do you have a sense of how much it costs to seismically retrofit, say, your basic five-unit soft-story building?
You really can't know until you do the full inspection of the building to determine what needs to be done. And that's going to vary dramatically from building to building. It could be tens of thousands of dollars for some buildings. It could be in the $100,000 range.
What will the process for owners look like if the proposal gets approved?
There are four phases.
- Within the first year, you have to determine whether the building needs to be retrofitted.
- Within two to four years, you have to complete the mandatory building evaluation.
- Within three to five years, you get a retrofit permit and submit a report that lays out the work you're going to be doing.
- Within four to six years, you get the actual construction work done.
How are you going to enforce compliance?
We have inspectors. We know most of the soft-story buildings and we know who owns them. The city can do spot inspections. We will be on top of these owners. We will go after owners who do not submit information as they are required to do in the first phase. They will be subject to penalties if they fail to comply. And if they fail to comply and not meet their requirements, they will be required to post in their lobby to every tenant (and prospective tenant) that they are living in a seismically unsafe building.
What kind of pushback have you been getting?
Earlier in the process, we got a lot of questions from property owners and tenant organizations. Over the past few years, we have addressed many of the concerns, made some adjustments and come up with a strong ordinance.