WeHo Will Require Owners of ‘Soft-Story’ Buildings to Prep Them for an Earthquake

A ‘soft-story’ apartment retrofitted with steel beams (Photo courtesy of Degenkolb Engineers).

Owners of apartment buildings that have tuck-under parking will have to seismically retrofit those buildings to protect them from possible earthquake damage thanks to a 3-2 vote by the West Hollywood City Council on Monday night.

Approximately 780 “soft-story” small apartment buildings in the city have until 2023 to be retrofitted to protect them from earthquake damage. “Soft story” apartments, commonly built in the 1950s and 1960s, are wood frame buildings with an open ground floor that is generally used for parking. These open ground floors are especially vulnerable of collapse during earthquakes, but can be reinforced via a steel frame around key pillars.

“This isn’t about saving buildings, it’s about saving lives,” said resident Ed Levin, an architect who worked on the committee that recommended the retrofits. “Other than hospitals, fire and police, we’re not worried about saving the buildings. We’re concerned about keeping people alive in a major earthquake, and these retrofits can help.”
However, Councilmember John D’Amico countered that while it is about saving lives, it also is about saving homes. Many buildings could collapse during a major earthquake, making it difficult to find new housing.

“If a building is red-tagged, [the residents] can’t live there at all,” D’Amico said. “They don’t get $35,000 to relocate themselves, they don’t get a landlord who has Ellised them and has to move them. They just don’t live in West Hollywood anymore.”

The cost of a steel frame is about $40,000, and a typical soft story building would require four such steel frames for a total cost of about $160,000. The city plans to allow building owners to pass some of the retrofit costs on to the building’s residents, but hasn’t determined an exact formula yet. No state or federal grants are available for seismic retrofits, but a few companies do offer loan programs.

The ordinance takes effect in one year, on April 1, 2018. Building owners then have five years to complete the work. City staffers have already held several outreach sessions with building owners, but plan to do many more in the next year.

Councilmember John Heilman voted against the measure, emphasizing that while he is in favor of safety, he is also concerned about the cost to property owners.

“I usually am on the side of tenants, but I feel tonight, I have to be the voice of property owners with respect to the impact of this ordinance,” Heilman said, noting that the ordinance essentially would devalue the property since potential buyers would not be willing to pay top dollar knowing a seismic retrofit financial obligation is looming over a property.

Councilmember John Duran also voted against the measure because he didn’t feel it went far enough. He wanted steel and concrete buildings to be included.

“To not move forward in some way, with some ordinance, I think we’re like ostriches with heads in the sand,” Duran said.

The cost to retrofit those concrete and steel buildings would be substantially more — between $50 and $100 per square foot. A three-story, 40,000 square foot concrete building would cost about $3.4 million to retrofit. A ten-story, 109,000 square foot steel building would cost about $9.8 million.

Heilman noted that the residents of high-rise condominium buildings like Empire West on Holloway Drive or Shoreham Towers on Horn Avenue could end up with a $100,000 retrofit bill, an amount many may not be able to afford.

There are fewer concrete and steel buildings like this in West Hollywood, but the Council intends to discuss retrofitting them within the next two months. Residents and building owners can find more information about the city’s seismic retrofit plans on its website.

  1. Those cheap, ugly tuck- under buildings should all be torn down. Not worth fixing. Perhaps that is the city’s objective?

  2. WOW! Why should the addition of nine steel I beams cost $160K! Cut away some drywall and plaster, set up beams with wood surround, re-plaster and paint. Why isn’t this $20 tops?
    Mind boggling. We could take that extra $140 per building and do a fine restoration on our MCM treasures.

  3. Again if you think I’m completely overstating the situation we are facing when it comes to billionaire real-estate moguls and their multinational corporations are gaining a monopoly on “residential properties” at the expense of the vast majority of non-millionaires please go to this link Wall Street, America’s New Landlord, Kicks Tenants to the Curb! Hardly a broad sweeping over-generalization when all available statistical evidence overwhelmingly supports the position. 😉

    I have NOT been able to find anything on real-estate moguls after successfully gaining a monopoly on “residential” properties or even being in a position to do so, suffering the ravages of poverty (like the vast majority of minimum wage earners do) all because of having to comply with the required necessary safety codes. Feel Free to POST the link if you find it! Now if the plight of Billionaire Real-Estate Moguls, Wall Street Executives, CEOs and, other monopoly crony capitalists is just too much for you, THIS LINK to a found raiser for them should make you feel a whole lot better! 🙂

  4. Randy, I didn’t suggest that retrofitting should not happen. It absolutely should! My intention was to point out to people like the tiresome Cy Hussain, who makes these sweeping generalizations, that landlords are often not who he thinks they are. I agree with everything you said. I’m thinking now that there may be some way to assist building owners like my friend in financing this project. I’m way out of my depth of knowledge when it comes to that, but maybe consideration for those landlords is already in process.

  5. Wow blueeyedboy NOT “taking a position on this issue of retrofitting” for Earth Quake Safety when this is what the article is about? Now *cherry picking* (suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position) data from your personal experience on investors in the real estate market is hardly an accurate reflection. I hardly think I am overstating the situation that billionaire real-estate moguls and their multinational corporations are gaining a monopoly on “residential properties” at the expense of the vast majority of non-millionaires. Wall Street, America’s New Landlord, Kicks Tenants to the Curb!

    We already have a system willing to overlook real-estate moguls when they are in violation of applicable antitrust legislation to gain their monopoly in the first place, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) or, even their obligations under California Civil Code section 1941 for the property being in a “habitable,” (substantially complies with state and local building and health codes that materially affect tenants’ health and safety) condition.

  6. blueeyedboy, I own property, right over the border in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t be thrilled about this expense either, but we are talking about public safety. If it “ruins” some of them, then so be it. I’m guessing those landlords are in the minority. As a landlord, I recognize my responsibility to provide a safe, clean, hospitable dwelling to my tenants. If I were a tenant, I’d expect that from my landlord, and wouldn’t expect to incur any expense to get a dwelling I have no ownership in up to those safety standards. I’m sorry for your friend, but I’m sure he has some options. If your friend inherited a building and has enough equity, he can borrow against it. Or sell it. Either way, it is difficult to feel sorry for someone who inherits property in West Hollywood. He probably has more than most people have. And I doubt it will “ruin” him if he has to sell, unless he has zero equity.

    But that’s not really the point. The point is that these buildings should be brought up to a safety standard. And as D’Amico pointed out, it is actually in the building owners’ financial interests to make that happen, should we have a major earthquake.

  7. I know several people who own rental properties and not one of them is a billionaire real-estate mogul; they’re not even millionaires. It is commonly inaccurately assumed that a landlord is wealthy (Cy). They are usually hard-working people who started buying rental property as an investment, often to have it to provide a retirement income in the future. A friend recently inherited an eight unit building from his dad, but every tenant has been there for decades, so he isn’t making much money from it. He assumes that by the time he is old enough to retire those tenants will have moved out, even if it is feet first, and then he can have some income to retire on. I’m not taking a position on this issue of retrofitting, but just know that this expense could financially ruin many of the building owners.

  8. Cy, agreed. Also, many of the buildings in West Hollywood have not changed ownership in years, or even decades. Those, especially, are cash machines for some of their owners. And some of those do a bare minimum of what is required by law to maintain their buildings, knowing they can be bought out by a major developer who will demolish the entire thing.

  9. I do not understand why this city continues to elect Heilman and Duran. One has been around way too long and the other recently cost every person in West Hollywood about $14.50 each. They both are married to development interests on an ongoing basis.

  10. *NO building owners should NOT be allowed to pass ANY of the retrofit costs on to the building’s residents!* California Civil Code section 1941 clearly states that when a landlord rents property to a tenant as a place to live, the property MUST be in a “habitable” condition. Where as “Habitable” is defined by fit to live in as in the rental unit is fit for occupation by human beings, it substantially complies with state and local building and health codes that materially affect tenants’ health and safety; where as “uninhabitable” means not fit to live in by NOT meeting these standards. The landlord has the obligation to repair their rental property and NOT at the resident’s expense as seen in the California Supreme Court case Green v. Superior Court, which held that all residential leases and rental agreements contain an implied warranty of habitability. Under the “implied warranty of habitability,” the landlord is legally responsible for repairing conditions that seriously affect the rental unit’s habitability. That is, the landlord must repair substantial defects in the rental unit and substantial failures to comply with state and local building and health codes. This can easily be applied to “landlords” keeping their buildings up to code in terms of Reasonable Earth Quake Resistance!

    Now if the billionaire real-estate moguls attempt to pass ANY of the cost to the residents to keep their buildings up to code, this is an easy win in Court just like I did with a bed bug case. A few years ago a Judge explained to a landlord of mine that yes they are “fully responsible at their expense” of getting rid of bed bugs under California Civil Code section 1941 that applies to “clean and sanitary buildings” specifically “rodents and vermin”. Just like the case of bringing their buildings up to code when it comes to bed bugs and other problems the billionaire real-estate moguls are responsible for, they attempt to bully others into paying for their business expenses. Reasonable Earth Quake Resistance expenses being passed on to residents just another example of the wealthy attempting to bully everyone else into paying their expenses to attain even more ill gotten gain!

  11. It speaks to the power of property owners (and public apathy) that it has taken *23* years since the Northridge earthquake for our city to finally pass this. I’m glad they did, but that quake, and Loma Prieta before that, revealed the deadly problems of soft-story buildings, and nothing was done for two decades.

    We’re two years behind LA passing their own version, which finally put enough pressure on WeHo to do the same. They’re splitting the cost 50/50 between owners and tenants and maybe we’ll follow a similar model? Let’s just hope we beat the clock ’til the next big one hits.

  12. For once the city is paying attention to residents, rental tenants. I had expected them to let landlords sell the buildings in favor of more mixed use buildings in any zone….waivers provided to anyone and everyone.

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