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City releases list of LA apartments that need earthquake retrofitting. What happens next?




A Los Angeles police officer stands in front of the Northridge Meadows Apartment building on Jan. 17, 1994, after the upper floors of the structure collapsed onto the open garages and first story, killing 16 people.
A Los Angeles police officer stands in front of the Northridge Meadows Apartment building on Jan. 17, 1994, after the upper floors of the structure collapsed onto the open garages and first story, killing 16 people.
Chuck Jackson/AP

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The earthquakes that have recently hit Japan and Ecuador are a potent reminder that preparing for seismic activity can mean the difference between life and death. 

It's always good to stock up on emergency supplies, but it's also important to make sure the structures we're living in are safe. 

To that end, the city of Los Angeles has released a list of 13,500 apartments and condominiums classified as "soft-story" structures that need to be retrofitted to withstand a large quake. Soft-story buildings are those that generally have large openings in the first-floor walls—such as garages, tuck-under parking or even large windows—making the first floor likely to collapse under the weight of the stories above during an earthquake, said Marissa Aho, chief resilience officer in Mayor Garcetti's office.

Most of the buildings on the list were built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and a number of the soft-story buildings were damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Aho said. 

The process of identifying the soft-story buildings began in 2014, when Mayor Garcetti partnered with Lucy Jones, former seismologist with the United States Geological Survey, to convene a seismic safety task force that, after more than 100 meetings, produced a report called "Resilience by Design" in December 2014.

"This report focused on increasing the city's resilience in three particularly vulnerable areas: strengthening our buildings, fortifying our water systems and enhancing reliable telecommunications," Aho said. "The soft-story retrofits were one of the 17 recommendations in the report."

The buildings on the retrofit list were identified by the city's Department of Building and Safety engineers, who began with a building-records review that identified approximately 30,000 buildings requiring a closer look, Aho said. "Through various verification methods, including aerial mapping and site inspections, the number of buildings was narrowed down to the 13,500 that have been identified," she said.

In almost all cases, building owners received notices in March and an invitation to a seismic-retrofit resource fair, which more than 2,000 attended on April 7, Aho said.

"The actual orders will begin being mailed out in tiered batches beginning in a few weeks," Aho said. "The first buildings that will have orders mailed out are those with 16 units or more, then buildings with three or more stories but fewer than 16 units. And finally, buildings with two stories and fewer than 16 units."

Building owners will have two years after the initial order is received to submit their retrofit plans and a structural analysis to the Department of Building and Safety. They will have 3-1/2 years after the original order was received to obtain all necessary permits, and seven years to comply with the required retrofit.

Building owners are required to notify tenants that their buildings are slated for the retrofit work, Aho said, but in most cases the tenants will  be able to continue to living in their units as the work is done.

While the retrofit costs will vary by structure, estimates are that the work will cost about $5,000 per unit in each building, Aho said.

While building owners will have seven years to complete the retrofits, once their plans and permits are approved the actual work should take only a few months, Aho said. Owners of more than 100 buildings have already started the process, she said.

Once the retrofit work is complete,  building owners can apply to the city's Housing and Community Investment Department for a temporary monthly rent surcharge of 50 percent of the cost of the work, capped at $38 per month per unit, Aho said.

"Approximately 99 percent or so of the soft-story buildings fall under the city's rent-stabilization ordinance," Aho said, "and so part of this measure is definitely to preserve the existing affordable housing that we have today, recognizing that we all play a role in helping to make sure the city is safer and stronger."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.