Major deadline looming for soft story retrofits in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A major deadline is looming for apartment and condo building owners in San Francisco.

Owners of 'Tier 3' properties, which are buildings with three or more stories and five to 15 units, must file permit applications by September 15, 2017 to comply with mandatory Soft Story Program requirements. According to the Department of Building Inspection, more than 1,300 buildings, which almost 40 percent of Tier 3 buildings have yet to file a permit.

"We've got 5, 6, 7 projects going on any given day," says general contractor Malcolm DeBrus, who adds that his phone rings several times a day with inquiries about seismic retrofits. The soft story construction generally takes place on the first floor of buildings, in the garage and storage spaces. "What we're doing with the seismic retrofit is not anything load bearing. What we're doing is helping the building move from side to side."

The purpose of the retrofits is to avoid the devastating damage San Francisco saw after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, particularly in the Marina District where many buildings collapsed or were irreparably damaged. "If you don't do any retrofitting at all, the chances of a collapse are one in four," says William Strawn with the Department of Building Inspection, who adds "if you do minimal retrofitting, that statistic changes to about one in 35."

Soft story retrofits usually cost between $100,000 and $400,000 depending on the size and condition of the building. "There's some instances of financial concerns, people need to go out and find the financing," says Janan New, the Executive Director of non-profit San Francisco Apartment Association, which advocates for rental housing owners. She says another challenge for building owners is supply in demand, "there's a lot of buildings that are trying to undergo this process right now, with only so many contractors available in a small city like San Francisco." But, New points out that building owners must comply, "God forbid we have another earthquake in this time frame and you haven't done anything, there's a huge liability to yourself and your tenants."

The September 15 deadline is just to file permits, usually a job for an engineer. Once the permit is filed, the building has another two years to complete the actual construction, which usually takes eight to ten weeks. For buildings that do not file on time, there are consequences including hearings with the Department of Building Inspection and potential liens against the property.
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