Berkeley activists warn tenants about seismic dangers

April 11, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Making sure structures are seismically safe is a serious challenge in communities like Berkeley, with many so-called soft story buildings. Typically, those are apartment buildings where the ground floor has garages or retail spaces with large windows and limited structural support. In Berkeley landlords are supposed to let tenants know about this danger.

The soft story structures can be pretty dangerous in a strong earthquake and residents have a right to know that.

"Behind us is the Hayward Fault. We know the Hayward fault will go, but the question is when it goes how many people will die? How many people will be buried under concrete from soft story buildings?" said Jesse Townley from the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.

Berkeley passed an ordinance seven years ago that's not being enforced for lack of money. It's an ordinance requiring landlords to complete seismic engineering studies and if a building they own isn't deemed earthquake safe, then they have to post warning signs on the property. But in many cases, that hasn't happened. So a coalition of city officials and UC Berkeley student activists took matters into their own hands Wednesday night as they launched an unofficial inspection of some of the soft story buildings near campus.

"By law, the landlords are supposed to let you know as a tenant that this is a soft story building," said one activist to a tenant.

In building after building, residents said there was no signage posted and they're worried.

"In that last little rumble that happened scared me a little bit. You could hear the plaster in the walls," said James Stanton, a tenant.

But there were two buildings that had posted the required warnings and another that was a perfect example of what apartment owners are supposed to be doing.

"We're retrofitting the whole building, seismic retrofit and remodeling the whole thing. Oh yeah, we have the sign up there," said Jay Lakireddy, a Berkeley landlord.

It's a fix that could save lives, but 75 percent of Berkeley's soft story buildings still haven't had retrofitting work done.

The goal is to raise awareness and put pressure on the landlords to get those engineering assessments done and get the signs up. They also want to put pressure on the city to enforce their own ordinance.

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