Soft Story Retrofit: How and Why It Impacts You!


The Earthquake Safety Implementation Program created the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program as a multi-year community-based effort in 2013. It is originally enforced to ensure the resilience and safety of San Francisco’s housing stock by retrofitting older, wood-framed multi-family units in soft-story condition. However, the regulation has made its way into Los Angeles.

Many apartment, commercial, and residential properties have what is known as a soft-story condition. The term is a description of a building having habitable room(s) above a porch area, carport, or garage that is not designed specifically to transmit lateral or shear forces to the above story.

Many California counties are drafting ordinances that require all soft-story buildings to be retrofitted. The city of Los Angeles, in cooperation with the Structure Engineers of Southern California and others, began developing a report in January 2014 that outlined a plan to create a seismic program for the city. The intention is to improve the resiliency of the city in case of a seismic event.

The ‘Resilience by Design’ report was issued on December 8, 2014. Included in the plan is a recommendation to evaluate seismically and strengthen the city’s multi-family soft-story buildings. The City uses internal resources to identify soft-story buildings affected by the program.

Under the law, property owners are given seven years to fix the problem. About 13,500 apartment complexes have been identified by officials that suspect the buildings are in need of repair. The need to retrofit affects certain neighborhoods more than others.

Numbers, on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, look daunting. Over half of the buildings that were cited as vulnerable seismically are in these two regions. Almost 3,200 San Fernando Valley apartment buildings are in need of retrofitting. More than 75,000 rental units are affected.

The Palms neighborhood on the Westside is particularly vulnerable. The Mentone Avenue six-block stretch has over 90 structures on the city’s list of buildings in need of repair. These neighborhoods experienced mid-century housing booms and fell prey to mid-century design in apartments that have proved to be deadly when major earthquakes occur.

The soft-story buildings have rental units above parking spots that are supported by a few vertical columns instead of solid foundations. If an earthquake should occur, the columns can buckle. The building would pancake and come down directly on whatever is beneath it.

Renters who reside in buildings that have been cited are particularly interested in the list. Not only is their safety affected, but also their finances. There is an outrageous demand for new housing in LA. Construction crews are barely keeping up with the demand, causing prices to spike. This has proven extremely costly for the owners of these properties.

However, LA cannot afford to lose rental units due to an earthquake. The Northridge earthquake serves as a reminder of what an earthquake can do on the housing market in LA. The 1994 earthquake removed 49,000 apartment units from the market in just one morning.

Retrofits are not cheap. The cost ranges from $60,000 to $300,000 to make a soft-story apartment meet the standards. Someone has to pay for the repairs. The LA City Council cast a unanimous vote that allowed landlords to pass half of retrofitting costs to tenants. A $38 per month raise in rent over a ten-year span of time will help pay for retrofitting costs, seismic evaluations, and interest on loans obtained for retrofitting construction. Still, the retrofit proves to be a daunting task.

Being on the list does not automatically mean a landlord must retrofit the building. The list is a compilation of examining city records and a door-to-door search of vulnerable buildings by inspectors. Closer inspection may reveal a property meets the necessary standards to waive the retrofit.

Mailing retrofit compliance orders began in May. Large apartment owners received the first orders. A large apartment building has at least 16 units. Owners having multi-family buildings with less than 16 units receive orders next.

Property owners have several options. Within two years, demolish the building, submit retrofitting plans to the city, or prove the structure of the building can withstand an earthquake’s seismic activity. The retrofit has to be completed within seven years of the compliance order receipt.

Rent increases to tenants will have a detrimental impact on their financial stability but keeping the tenants safer in an earthquake is more important. The fear for all is a sudden demand for mandatory retrofits, which will cause prices for construction contractors and qualified structural engineers to surge.

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