Business & Economy

Seismic retrofits should be split between landlord and tenant, agency says

A construction worker using a chain on January 24, 1994, starts to cut up some of the destroyed walls in the courtyard of Northridge Meadow, the apartment complex that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake. Sixteen people were killed when the building collapsed during the quake. Councilman Tom LaBonge is now proposing an inventory of so-called
A construction worker using a chain on January 24, 1994, starts to cut up some of the destroyed walls in the courtyard of Northridge Meadow, the apartment complex that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake. Sixteen people were killed when the building collapsed during the quake. Councilman Tom LaBonge is now proposing an inventory of so-called "soft-story" buildings — those where the top stories could collapse onto the lower floor during a major temblor.
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Los Angeles housing officials say tenants and landlords should evenly split the heavy costs to reinforce thousands of apartment buildings against an earthquake.

To protect tenants' wallets, officials at the city's housing department recommend capping rent hikes to pay for retrofits to $38 per month over a period of five or more years.

But tenants say they shouldn’t have to pay for reinforcements on property they don’t even own, pointing out that rents are high enough in L.A.,  one of the least affordable housing markets in the country.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” Evelyn Ramos, a renter from El Sereno, told the City Council’s Housing Committee Wednesday. “I think it’s the obligation of the owners, not the tenants.”

Richard Otterstrom, past president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, rejected renters' claim that repairs would add worth to an apartment building.

“Retrofits do not increase the value of the property,” Otterstrom said. “It’s a lot like replacing a roof every 15 years.”

Landlords say they can’t fully absorb the cost of retrofits which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Aside from asking for flexibility to pass on retrofit costs, landlords want the city to waive business license taxes and building permit fees for those undertaking retrofit projects. They are also hoping Gov. Jerry Brown will sign AB 428, a bill that would give landlords tax credits equal to 30 percent of what they spend on retrofitting.

Despite the disagreement over who should pay for what, the housing committee decided Wednesday that the city needed to move forward on creating a law mandating retrofits and is recommending that the City Attorney’s office start work on an ordinance. The full council will take up the issue next week.

City officials say retrofits are needed for an estimated 13,000 "soft story" buildings in L.A. — wooden structures, often with carports on the first floor, and 1,000 or so concrete structures.

Housing Committee chair Gil Cedillo said a 50-50 split of the retrofit costs is more equitable than what's allowed in San Francisco: a 100 percent pass-through to the tenant. He noted that in L.A., the debate over the renter's share of retrofits has died down substantially over the course of four meetings between the city and representatives for tenants and landlords. The fact that no one group embraced the housing department's proposal was not a bad sign, he said.

"Mutual discord can be indicative of compromise," Cedillo said.

In March, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he wants a retrofit law in place by the end of the year. It’s a deadline that Cedillo said the city will be able to meet, even though details about how much tenants have to pay for retrofits is still being hashed out. 

Garcetti said in a statement that the housing panel's decision to move the law forward "marks a critical step in preparing Los Angeles for the next big earthquake and realizing my Resilience by Design plan. To save lives and protect our City's housing stock, we need to move forward with the tools that allow us to retrofit some of our most at risk buildings."

You can read the full report below:

Document: LA City Council Committee recommendations

This story has been updated.