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.