San Francisco Earthquake Retrofit Proposal Could Put Renters At Risk

A proposal to seismically retrofit some 3,000 buildings in San Francisco has come under fire due to fears that it could cause a wave of rent increases and potentially problematic temporary evictions.

Under the proposed piece of legislation, introduced earlier this month by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, owners of "soft-story" buildings would be required to make seismic improvements to ensure earthquake safety. Soft-story buildings are multi-story, wood-framed buildings that feature openings like wide garage doors or windows in place of a solid ground-level wall, making them susceptible to collapse in the event of a major quake.

"We've been talking for years and years about doing something, and our voluntary retrofit program doesn't seem to work for everyone because the work is not getting done," Supervisor Scott Weiner, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the mayor's legislation, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We know that in a major earthquake, soft-story buildings are very likely to be badly damaged if not destroyed."

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is a 62 percent probability that Northern California will be hit by at least one 6.7 magnitude or greater earthquake in the next two decades.

The bill would apply only to buildings built prior to 1978, that are three or more stories tall and have at least five units of housing. Single-family homes would be exempt, leaving the burden almost exclusively on apartment buildings largely filled with renters.

The city estimates these soft-story buildings house some 58,000 San Francisco residents, and costs for each retrofit could reach upwards of $100,000. Figuring out exactly who will have to shoulder the brunt of those expenses is what has some housing advocates worried.

"We have concerns about this, mainly that landlords will be able to pass through the costs to tenants and that landlords will use it as a pretext to evict long-term tenants with affordable rents, so we’ll be working to increase tenant protections in this plan," San Francisco Tenants Union Executive Director Ted Gullicksen told the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Under city law, landlords are, over the course of two decades, able to pass 100 percent of the cost of mandatory seismic upgrades on to tenants--a practice that Gullicksen warned could lead to rent increases of up to $100 per month for some renters.

There have also been fears that these mass forced upgrades could lead to a significant number of temporary evictions. Landlords can issue 90-day temporary evictions, provided that tenants are compensated with a $4,500 moving stipend, which can increase up to $13,500 depending on the number of elderly tenants and those under the age of 18.

However, Charley Goss, government affairs director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, predicted the actual number of evictions will be relatively small due to the majority of the work required to retrofit these soft-story buildings occurring on the ground floor, which tends to have fewer residents than higher floors.

In 2010, San Francisco instituted a voluntary program where building owners could have some of their permitting fees waived by the city if they agreed to complete seismic retrofits on soft-story buildings. The program attracted little interest (in fact, the number of seismic retrofits actually went down from previous years) because, as Goss explained the amount of the fees being waived paled in comparison to the overall cost of the doing the retrofit.

He noted that property owners have known something like this is coming for years, but most of them were waiting until the retrofit program became mandatory before undergoing construction. They were operating under the assumption that, upon the institution of a long-looming widespread mandatory program, they would ultimately get more clarity from the city as to precisely what would be required of them and what programs might be put in place to help with payment other operational needs.

In January, the San Francisco Public Press published a list of the thousands of soft-story buildings in the city that could theoretically be unsafe in the event of an earthquake. The full list can be found here.

Check out this slideshow of pictures from the 1989 Loma Prieta quake:

San Francisco 1989 Earthquake