Opinion: ‘Don’t Ask, Cause We Won’t Tell’ — West Hollywood’s Refusal to Disclose Buildings at Risk from Earthquakes

seismic retrofit
Soft-story wood frame buildings that typically are vulnerable to earthquake damage.

You live in a rent-stabilized apartment building. So how is it that your monthly rent jumped so high?

Or you own a rent-stabilized building, and now you’re hearing that you have to take out a huge loan to fix it up. How are you going to pay for that?

Those are questions that thousands of West Hollywood residents and hundreds of building owners may find themselves asking before long.

So why didn’t you show up at the two community meetings (and the Rent Stabilization Commission meeting) recently to discuss the cost of repairs to earthquake-vulnerable buildings that the City Council has decided must be fixed? Why didn’t you weigh in on the various options for spreading the cost between renters and building owners, some of which may result in a permanent increase in monthly rent long after the cost of fixing the building is paid off?

That’s probably because you had no idea that your building might be at risk. And that’s because the City of West Hollywood, in an egregious violation of the state’s freedom of information laws, refuses to make the list of potentially at-risk buildings public.

In 2015 the City Council authorized a contract with Degenkolb Engineers to survey the roughly 4,600 buildings in West Hollywood to determine which of them might be at risk in the inevitable next earthquake. (The U.S. Geologic Survey says there’s a 50% chance that a 6.0 magnitude earthquake will occur in greater Los Angeles in the next 25 years).

Degenkolb did what city officials are calling a “drive by” survey, which means that its engineers identified buildings potentially at risk by viewing them from the outside. The survey identified 780 wood frame buildings with soft, weak or open front walls that could be at risk. (Buildings with apartments located on the second floor and parking on the ground level underneath, such as those pictured above, are in that category). It identified 55 “ductile” concrete buildings that are vulnerable to cracking in an earthquake. It found 31 “steel moment frame” buildings that were constructed before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which revealed that that sort of building wasn’t as safe as it had been thought to be. Another 60 were in the “undetermined” category, which means there will need to be additional investigation to determine if they are at risk. That amounts to a fifth of the buildings in West Hollywood.

The City Council passed an ordinance requiring that all at-risk buildings in the first three categories be “retrofitted” to protect them (and their residents) from earthquake damage. (In June 2017 it granted an exemption to the city’s relatively affluent condo owners, who turned out to complain about the cost of protecting themselves from an earthquake. They now won’t have to pay to protect themselves and their buildings — although it’s likely all of the city’s residents will have to pay to clean the debris from the streets and surrounding property if a condo building does collapse.)

Working with another consultant, Degenkolb estimated that fixing the “soft story” buildings could cost from $40,000 to $160,000. Fixing the ductile concrete and the steel moment frame buildings could cost much more. One study reviewed by Degenkolb showed the cost of retrofitting a three-story, 39,600-square-foot ductile concrete building could be as much as $3.4 million.

The recent community meetings to discuss who will pay for retrofitting at risk buildings have attracted no more than a dozen people each. Even worse was the discussion at the city’s Rent Stabilization Commission of who should pay what to fund earthquake retrofitting. It attracted four people. Local resident Stephanie Harker, who attended the meeting, noted that a likely reason for the poor attendance is that local residents of rent-stabilized buildings didn’t realize they might face large and permanent rent increases.

So back to WEHOville’s request for a list of the buildings that Degenkolb has determined may be at risk. City Attorney Mike Jenkins says the city is concerned that publishing the list might unnecessarily alarm some residents, because an engineering report ultimately might determine that a particular building on the list isn’t at risk.  (Oddly, the City of Los Angeles didn’t have that worry when it released its list of 13,500 possibly at-risk buildings, which you can find in a database published by the Los Angeles Times.) Jenkins’ argument doesn’t qualify as an exemption from freedom of information laws.  For that, Jenkins argues that the document that Degenkolb was hired to prepare and which it did prepare and for which the city paid, is a “draft” document and doesn’t have to be released for that reason.

So what, dear reader, would you prefer? That the City of West Hollywood not worry you by saying that you “might” live in an at-risk building (until you get hit with a rent increase to pay for fixing it)? Or would you rather learn that your building “might” be at risk so that you can join the discussion about who will pay to fix it and how, if and when that risk finally is ascertained?  Please feel free to share your opinions below, and with your City Council members.

  1. If the city wants its rent stabilized buildings to be fixed then they can pay for it themselves. This is a free country and our government has no right to come in and tell us our building is unsafe after they themselves passed many of the inspections. If they feel that way they should condemn the buildings and kick all the tenants out or simply get rid of rent control. Rent control is the worst thing for any city. No investor or Land owner is going to put money in a building that they can not make money from. Its as simple as that.

    If the city cares about its citizens then they would give owners the right to get rid of rent stabilized or rent controlled units and in return the owner would have to fix the damaged or dangerous buildings. If the city wants to force landlord to have cheap tenants in rent controlled apartments then the city can pay for any repairs. The city spends hundreds of millions on absolutely nothing. Lets see them put the money where it belongs.
    And if you don’t believe me look at the entire east side Mostly rent controlled and its is a true s”’ hole. Let the private sector run the way its supposed to and things will fix themselves. Owners want to and need to make money from their properties. If they can’t they definitely won’t put money into that property. The city keeps trying the same thing and it gets us no where. Maybe ask some of the private land owners what they think could be done and we could potentially resolve this issue.

  2. If the City can pay for all the construction it’s been doing, than the City can afford to cover the cost of helping with retrofitting. That shouldn’t be tenants responsibility. We’re a rich city. Call and left them know this at 323/848-6400. Let them know you will work to make sure this is their last term on the City Council if this hits tenants as planned.

  3. WEHO withholds information if you are living in an earthquake deathtrap?

    The “pay for play” John Duran’s that run WEHO only share what benefits the corrupt plot that is the three Johns. All white men – Heilman, Duran and D’Amico! They won’t disclose if your building will collapse in an earthquake. Why?

    Because these WEHO politicians are only concerned about their legacy and the campaign donation bucks they can get into their pockets from greedy developers.

    Durand must never be made our WeHo Mayor in May!

    D’Amico is hooked-up with Durand so he most likely will vote for him as our Grindr “Legacy” Mayor in May but if Meister and Horvath vote for Durand they must be voted out of office.

    As for West Hollywood telling WeHo apartment dwellers which buildings are death traps…forget ‎it.

    These politicians and the West Hollywood City Hall aren’t working for the voters; they are streetwalkers for big money, Wells Fargo Bank, and the developers.

  4. No, Tenants should not need to show up at meetings. The City has a responsibility to notify us if we are at risk. Ms. Harker goes to all kinds of meetings. That is her thing. Most tenants do not want to spend their time listening to governmental gobleygook. I have been to some City Council meetings and they are a waste of time. Hours and hours of nothingness.

    We vote for our City Council for this reason. For them to represent us and for them to keep us informed of what our government is doing. It is their responsibility to release that list. If our rents are going to be impacted (which, if the State will be reimbursing building owners for repairs, our rents should not be impacted at all), our representatives should let us know how much and for how long.

    If our City Attorney is breaking the law, maybe we need a new one and a movement to replace Mr. Jenkins should begin.

    1. Yes, Alison, I DO go to meetings, because for me, it is the best place to get information. I highly recommend it, if you really want to participate in what’s going on. Granted, some of it is as boring as hell, but you can ask questions and get answers or at least find out to whom you can go for answers.

      One thing I DID learn at a completely open meeting about seismic Retrofitting pass-through fees is that the State is NOT reimbursing the landlords. Also, this is required by the state and San Francisco and Los Angeles’ programs are already underway. I believe the landlords have five years to complete this.

      This has nothing to do with anyone getting rid of rent stabilization. This is being required to be looked at by the State of California NOT by Lauren Meister nor John D’Amico.

      In the long run, if/when there is a significant earthquake and your soft-story structure (your home) collapses and is red-tagged you will have to move out and find another place to live.

  5. As I’ve said in my previous comment regarding this subject, this is a way for the City to end Rent Control once and for all without looking like the bad guys. The mere fact that they would expect tenants to bear the costs of capital improvements on these properties when the owners will eventually be reimbursed by the state is irresponsible, ridiculous and another money grab. Who should we thank for this one? Lauren Meister or John D’Amico? Take it back to the drawing board and think about your constituents. The Rent Control tenants might not show up for your poorly planned secret meetings (that was advertised with no time or location) but we can be quite convincing when we show up to VOTE.

    1. I think that is a little paranoid. I don’t believe any of the City Councilmembers oppose rent control. Disclosure would be good here, but I don’t think it is some secret tactic to abolish rent control. It is more likely bureaucratic dysfunction.

  6. I spoke to Rent Stabilization and Housing Manager Peter Noonan by phone and was told the City did not have a complete list yet of the buildings, but that my building, a soft-story style, was “probably one that was at risk”.

  7. Guess you have to sue for the documents.
    Or we can start an online petition now #ReleaseReportHomesAtRisk

    Thank you for the heads up, Mr Scott.

  8. Just for the record the city did hold two prior community meetings regarding the seismic retrofitting of soft-story buildings; one at Weho Park on a Saturday morning which was under attended and the other in the evening at Plummer Park with about 30 people. This issue will potentially affect around 700 buildings and could impact close to 7,000 apartment dwellers. I attended the latter. At the Rent Stabilization Commission meeting I did NOT say local residents “might face large and permanent rent increases”, but I DID say that a $38.00 rent increase (which is the amount LA’s renters are paying under a similar program) COULD affect some low income tenants. Also, in my understanding the possible pass-through increase would be for a definitive period of time. This is an extremely complicated issue and I think that city needs to double its efforts to reach out to tenants and TENANTS need to show up at meetings and educate themselves. The city encourages input on this issue and the citizens need to ask questions and provide ideas. Earthquake preparations are vital.

  9. If the city is requiring changes and the city paid for the survey, this is public information. What kind of Trump effect BS is this?
    Release the information.

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