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SF hopes to avoid code enforcement ‘nightmare’ over soft-story retrofit mandate

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A soft-story building is defined as one where the first story is weaker than the stories above them due to a lack of walls or frames. There are 1,450 buildings in The City that have yet to comply with the seismic retrofit mandate for soft-story buildings. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco is facing an enforcement “nightmare” with owners of nearly 1,500 soft-story residential buildings yet to comply with a looming deadline for seismic retrofits.

After more than a decade of study and a yearslong debate over whether property owners could pass the costs on to tenants, The City in 2013 passed a law mandating retrofits of buildings most likely to collapse during a major earthquake.

Under that mandate, owners of wood-frame soft-story buildings with three-stories and five to 15 units must submit permit applications and plans for the construction work by Sept. 15.

But with permit applications from 41 percent of the buildings still outstanding, city officials have started to worry.

“We are heavily involved in the outreach program right now,” Tom Hui, director of the Department of Building Inspection, told the Building Inspection Commission on July 19. “Right now, we have 1,500 not complying yet, that’s why we need to do a big push. Otherwise, the code enforcement will be a nightmare for us.”

As of last week, owners of 1,450 buildings — 41 percent of the 3,506 buildings to which the mandate applies — had yet to submit permit applications.

These soft-story buildings — the first story is weaker than the stories above them due to lack of walls or frames — are mainly located in the Marina, Chinatown, Western Addition, Castro/Noe Valley, Richmond and Mission neighborhoods.

The areas where the most buildings remain out of compliance are: District 5, which includes the Western Addition, with 304 buildings; District 8, which includes the Castro/Noe Valley, with 280; and District 2, the Marina, with 250.

It’s unclear why the remaining property owners have not yet filed permit applications. Landlords can pass on to their tenants the cost of 50 percent of both capital repairs and revenue bonds approved by voters. But when it comes to these seismic retrofits, landlords can have tenants pay for 100 percent of the work amortized over a 20-year period.

The retrofit work can cost between $50,000 and $200,000, and the pass-through amount to tenants is split evenly among the number of units in the building. The Rent Board has seen soft-story related pass-through rent increases on the low end of $10.91 and on the high end $171 with multiple in the $50 to $80 range. Tenants can apply for financial hardships to not pay the costs.

Bill Strawn, a DBI spokesperson, told the commission that the department is doing as much outreach as possible.

“I don’t know if they are procrastinating or exactly what they are doing,” Strawn said of the building owners. “We are trying of course to avoid having hundreds of code enforcement cases to deal with.”

Failure to comply with the Sept. 15 deadline will come with penalties. For instance, The City would post an “Earthquake Warning” placard on the property and issue a notice of violations.

After the 30-day notice, The City can assess monetary penalties along with putting a lien on the property.

“An assessment of cost for DBI’s code enforcement work will be billed to the owner, which starts a couple of thousands of dollars,” DBI spokesperson Lily Madjus said. “Failure to respond and pay the fees may result in a lien on the property.”

The retrofit requirement stems from San Francisco’s Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS), started by DBI in 1998 as a nine-year, $1 million study of the risks of a major earthquakes and ways to make The City more resilient. There is a 72 percent likelihood of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater striking the Bay Area before 2043, experts with the U.S. Geological Survey estimated last year.

A 7.2-magnitude earthquake on the San Andreas fault, for instance, would result in an estimated 300 dead and 7,000 injuries, as well as 27,000 buildings being condemned and 2,700 destroyed by fire, 85,000 housing units lost and up to $30 billion in property damage, a 2011 CAPSS report found.

WORK QUALITY QUESTIONED

As San Francisco pushes property owners to meet the deadline, David Bonowitz, a longtime San Francisco structural engineer, has raised concerns to DBI and the commission about the quality of the work happening by “bottom-feeders” after observing one job he said received approvals but shouldn’t have.

“We know there is some sloppy and inadequate work being done — that’s a fact — but we do not have a complete understanding of how pervasive the problems are, or of where they initiate,” Bonowitz said in an email on Friday to the San Francisco Examiner. “Are the problems we’ve seen one in 1,000? Or one in 10? Are they from specific contractors or inspectors, or are they more randomly distributed?”

He continued, “Some of the owners are vulnerable, not knowing how to review the work — especially if DBI is willing to sign off on it, despite problems. Others are reluctant to do the work in the first place, so they provide unfortunate opportunities for low-end engineers and contractors.”

Edward Sweeney, DBI’s deputy director of inspection services, told the commission last month that based on the concerns raised, he had senior inspectors take a closer look at the work.

“This month, my seniors went out on 29 separate inspections for quality control,” Sweeney said. “Of the 29, there were two correction notices. One was minor, one is going to require a revision.”

On Friday, Madjus said the department was “unaware” of a lack in the quality of work as suggested by Bonowitz.

“Our district inspectors do go out to the site to approve each stage of the alteration work, as required by the Building Code, and ultimately issue a Certificate of Final Completion when work has been completed and meets all applicable code requirements,” Madjus said in an email.

Another issue raised by Sweeney to the commission was that the sheer demand for work may make put deadlines out of reach and that some building owners are simply selling their properties.

“There’s an awful lot of buildings that, I’ve been told, have been sold because you have people on fixed incomes, people that just had no idea how to get a contractor and an engineer and they sold their buildings,” Sweeney said. “A lot, from what I hear, a lot of elderly people have sold their properties because of this program.”

He added, “I don’t think there’s enough engineers or contractors to meet this deadline. That’s my opinion.”

When asked to respond to Sweeney’s comments, Madjus said, “We have heard about this challenging issue from property owners.”

She added, “However, for the Sept. 15 deadline, property owners are only required to file their permit application with plans through Over-the-Counterand are not yet required to complete the work until Sept. 15, 2019.”

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