Owners of nearly 2,000 apartment buildings in San Francisco have done nothing to bring their properties up to current seismic safety standards, despite an approaching deadline and possible fines if the mandatory work is not completed.
With five months to go before a Sept. 15 deadline to pull permits for the work, owners of nearly 52 percent of “tier three” buildings — wood-frame structures of between five and 15 units — have yet to submit permit applications. That’s the first step in the process needed to comply with the city’s 2013 mandatory soft-story law, which targets buildings susceptible to collapse in an earthquake.
Out of 3,526 buildings in the category, 1,693 have filed for permits, while 1,834 have not, said Department of Building Inspection Director Tom Hui. Hui said he is surprised at how many property owners have ignored the call to bring their buildings into compliance, given the monthly mailed notices and publicity around the program.
“They have had plenty of time to respond,” Hui said. “It’s for public safety. We just want them to comply and protect themselves, the tenant and the public. Earthquakes are not predictable — one could happen this afternoon.”
The tier three buildings represent the third phase in the city’s effort to shore up wood-frame buildings that house more than 110,000 residents. While the buildings are spread across the city, they are most common in Chinatown, the Marina, North Beach, the Mission, the Castro and the Western Addition neighborhoods.
The soft-story law targets wood-frame buildings where the first story is substantially weaker and more flexible than the stories above because of a lack of walls or frames at the street level.
The program started with just six institutional and educational buildings, which all came into compliance. The next phase focused on 509 buildings with more than 15 units, of which 95 percent are in the process of doing upgrades. Tier three includes the buildings between five and 15 units, and the final tier, due next year, includes 913 structures with a ground-floor commercial use.
The September deadline is setting off a frantic dash among property owners, according to John Pollard of SF Garage Co., who said many landlords are just waking up to the fact that time is running out. While tier three owners have to submit their permit application by Sept. 15, they have an additional two years to complete the work. Pollard’s company offers soft-story retrofits.
“A guy called today with five buildings, and a lady called yesterday with four,” Pollard said. “We have seven engineers who are doing nothing but these soft-story permits.”
Pollard said that the number of tier three properties that still have not filed for permits does not bode well.
“There are not enough engineering firms in the entire state of California to do 1,800 buildings in five or six months,” Pollard said. “It sounds like tier three is egregiously behind.”
The cost of reinforcing an old wooden apartment building varies, but can range between $100,000 and $1 million, depending on condition and location.
Mark Barbagelata, owner of Seismic Retrofitters, puts the cost at between $30 and $50 a square foot — so roughly between $300,000 and $500,000 for a typical 12-unit, 10,000-square-foot building with spacious flats.
Over the past year, Barbagelata’s office has become a revolving door of landlords with questions about bolts, clips, foundation footings, steel frames and shear walls — all of which are used to shore up properties against earthquakes.
“It’s kind of a mad scramble out there,” he said. “A lot of panicking people.”
Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, which works on behalf of landlords, blamed some of the lack of compliance on sticker shock.
“What we are hearing from members is the bids are coming in a lot higher than they originally had anticipated,” New said. “For some of the smaller landlords, it’s become a big financial burden.”
The fact that only a limited number of construction groups specialize in soft-story work is also a problem, she said. “We don’t have enough vendors, and that is driving costs up, too,” she said.
For some landlords, the soft-story program offers the potential of income gains along with the retrofit pain. A 2015 law passed by the Board of Supervisors allows property owners doing soft-story retrofits to add new housing units by converting ground-floor or basement spaces into units. So far, applications have been filed to add 344 “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, through the program. Pollard estimates that 75 percent of the soft-story projects he is doing include new units.
Dawn Ma of Q-Architecture said many of her clients regard the soft-story program as a “hassle rather than an improvement.” But those who look into the ADUs have been pleasantly surprised. She has a client who is adding six units to a four-unit building on Page Street. “We were able to maximize every nook and cranny.”
While the Department of Building Inspection has made it clear it doesn’t see the soft-story program as a profit center, those who choose to ignore it could eventually pay in both public embarrassment and fines.
After Sept. 15, tier three property owners who haven’t submitted plans will get a big placard stating “Earthquake Warning” slapped on the side of their buildings. If the property owners continue to ignore the warnings, they will be summoned to a hearing to explain why. After that, the city will start fining the property owner for code violations, a lien could be placed on the property, and the case could be referred to the city attorney for legal action.
A 2009 report from Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety, a city panel charged with improving earthquake safety, found that buildings with no retrofitting are projected to have a 1-in-4 collapse rate during a serious quake, while those with minimum retrofitting have a 1-in-30 chance of falling down. Given the stakes, Hui, the building inspection director, encouraged tenants of soft-story buildings to lean on their landlords to meet the retrofit deadline.
“A lot of people want to see us penalize landlords, but we just want them to comply,” Hui said. “We don’t want to make money from this. Just do the job.”