San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, January 17, 2010
It's been almost a year since Mayor Gavin Newsom first said he supports requiring San Francisco property owners to pay for seismic retrofits of their buildings - but at long last, actual legislation out of the mayor's office is just several weeks away.
Newsom has long supported voluntary retrofits of buildings that are liable to collapse in an earthquake. They're the "soft-story" buildings with a home above a garage or store that have a front window or garage door where a wall would usually be. But in his State of the City address Wednesday he said mandatory retrofits are a top priority this year.
He said property owners haven't taken advantage of the voluntary program, but that the expense of the work can no longer get them a free pass.
"At what point is that no longer an excuse? There's a price and a burden of living in one of the world's greatest places," adding that collapsing buildings wouldn't just harm the property owners but others nearby as well.
It is expected to cost $9,000 to $28,000 per residential unit, according to a city-commissioned report conducted last year. But before you choke on your Cheerios, know that the mayor's administration is trying to figure out how to help owners pay for the work - and that's what has slowed the legislation.
There are three scenarios: putting a general obligation bond on the ballot, using previously approved bond money that wasn't used, which would also require a ballot initiative, or setting up a special tax district. In the latter, property owners would get low-interest loans for the work that they would pay back through increased property taxes over time. If the property was sold, the buyer would be on the hook for the taxes.
Another component yet to be worked out by the mayor's office is the penalty for not doing the mandatory retrofit work.
The report last year recommended mandatory retrofits for 2,800 large, wood-frame buildings in the city at a total cost of $260 million - but said the work could avert $1.5 billion in damage after a major earthquake.