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San Francisco's Soft-Story Buildings Lie Vulnerable To Quake

San Francisco Examiner
By: Joshua Sabatini 03/19/11
Examiner Staff Writer

Japan’s devastation following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake is another reminder San Francisco needs to do more before the next big one rocks The City.
 
But doing more often means spending more money, especially when it comes to retrofitting the thousands of “soft-story” buildings in San Francisco most vulnerable to collapsing during an earthquake.
 
For years, city leaders have grappled with how to get property owners to upgrade the wood-framed residential buildings, where the first story is weaker than the above stories.
 
In December, a report prepared for The City’s Department of Building Inspection — called the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety — recommended San Francisco should require private property owners to seismically upgrade their soft-story buildings by 2020.
 
A 7.2-magnitude earthquake on the San Andreas fault would result in 300 dead, 7,000 injuries, 27,000 buildings being condemned, 2,700 destroyed by fire, 85,000 housing units lost and up to $30 billion in property damage, the report says.
 
But mandating private property owners upgrade their buildings is a politically charged proposal involving landlords and tenants and a hefty bill. The costs are expected to range from about $60,000 to $130,000 per building, according to the report.
 
A way to help private property owners shoulder the costs has yet to be resolved. There are other debates, such as how much of the costs landlords could pass on to tenants.
 
Noni Richen, president of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute, said many building owners will need financial assistance from The City. She objected to what she called “unfunded mandates” to fix buildings.
 
“Unfunded mandates are what kill a lot of private businesses,” Richen said. “We can’t move our houses.”
 
Last year, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced legislation that would have mandated seismic upgrades, but it has gone nowhere. In November, voters rejected a $46 million “deferred loan and grant program” to help landlords pay to retrofit buildings housing low-income tenants.
 
Mayor Ed Lee’s spokeswoman Christine Falvey said a “working group” has been assembled to review the report’s 17 recommendations with the intent of implementing them. The group, led by City Administrator Amy Brown, meets for the first time later this month.
 
“Ed supports requiring private property owners to do this. But he wants to find some [funding] mechanism to make this achievable,” Falvey said.
 
John Paxton, who owns a real estate consulting business and sat on the CAPSS advisory committee, said there are big policy issues left unanswered, but The City should move now to resolve them.
 
“Every day we don’t do something we’re a day closer to a catastrophic earthquake,” Paxton said. “There is legislation sitting in the file folder in City Hall that could be brought out this afternoon.”
 
Massive destruction
 
What would happen after a 7.2-magnitude quake on the San Andreas fault:
 
85,000: Units of The City’s 330,000 housing units would be uninhabitable 
11,000: Units that would have to be demolished 
5,800: Units that would be destroyed by fires
$17 billion to $54 billion: Potential value of the amount the damage to buildings due to shaking and fire
 
Source: Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety report
 
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