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Seismic retrofit incentives under scrutiny

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Mayor Gavin Newsom’s latest plan to accelerate seismic retrofits for vulnerable buildings in San Francisco won’t work, analysts say.

City officials have been struggling to get the owners of so-called soft-story buildings in The City — which house about one-third of San Franciscans — to make seismic improvements before the next big earthquake.

A soft-story building is wood-framed with garages above ground level or shops that are structurally weaker than the upper stories and prone to crumbling during a major seismic episode.

In an effort to encourage building owners to voluntarily retrofit their structures, Newsom introduced revised legislation last year that would waive certain city fees and offer an expedited permitting process for construction applications filed with The City.

But the legislation offers a small incentive amounting to 2.7 percent of the total retrofit cost and is “not expected to significantly increase the number of voluntary retrofits,” according to a new report from City Controller’s Office.

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“A more comprehensive approach may be necessary to accelerate retrofitting,” the report concluded.

The Newsom administration said the mayor’s legislation was “never intended to be a cure-all.”

“But providing homeowners with reduced permit costs gives them more incentive to do the right thing and secure their buildings,” the administration said.

Debra Walker, who sits on the Building Inspection Commission, said “voluntary programs don’t work.”

As early as spring, The City is expected to discuss a proposal that would make it mandatory for building owners to seismically upgrade their structures, she said.

The Department of Building Inspection is drafting a plan that would provide low-interest loans to building owners to pay for the upgrades, which they would be required to perform, Walker said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com



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