Berkeley residents warned on soft-story buildings

March 20, 2013 8:43:46 PM PDT
A group of Berkeley citizens and some elected officials went door-to-door Wednesday to hand out tips on earthquake preparedness. They also want to tell some tenants their buildings are not in compliance with city ordinances.

More than 75 percent of Berkeley's soft-story buildings surveyed in 2011 were not seismically retrofitted. Landlords say they're all for retrofitting but they need the city to be a partner in making it happen. Tenants want a safe but inexpensive place to live.

Soft story structures are buildings with large openings at ground level for garages or under-parking, constructed in the 1950's and 60's prior to update seismic codes.

"They are particularly susceptible to collapse in a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake," Berkeley resident Igor Tregub said.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake remains on the minds of many. The magnitude 6.9 quake shook the Bay Area, killing 63 people. New building codes would work to prevent that amount of damage and loss of life from happening again.

Tregub has held official positions with the city of Berkeley, but Wednesday he was working in a personal capacity. He believes recent seismic activity in the East Bay highlights the importance of retrofitting Berkeley's apartment buildings before the next big quake. There has been a law on the books since 2005 for landlords with five or more units to notify tenants of the soft-story danger and have an engineer perform a seismic evaluation. But Tregub says many aren't moving fast enough.

"There is a subset of property owners who are not in compliance with that stage of the statutory ordinance," Tregub said.

The Berkeley Property Owners Association, which has more than 600 members, says they acknowledge the problem of seismic vulnerability from soft-story buildings, but as property owners they face challenges too -- single-purpose bank financing for capital improvement is hard to come by because banks still aren't lending and the association says the unavailability of rent increases under strict rent control is the biggest problem they face. They are unable to pass through some of the cost to sitting tenants.

"Berkeley rent is ridiculous as it is," renter Eduardo Joya said.

Caught in the middle are tenants who would like a safer building to live in but says that must take a backseat to affordability.

"I have rent control, I'm very fortunate to live in a place where I can afford it," Joya said.


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