L.A. Officials Approve Raising Your Rent in the Name of Earthquake Safety

Damage from the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
Damage from the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.

UPDATE at 2:40 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, 2015: The full City Council has approved the retrofit mandate. See the details, below. First posted at 8:04 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 8.

A powerful city board this week said yes to rent hikes for tens of thousands of Los Angeles residents.

The Housing Committee voted unanimously to mandate that landlords of about 13,500 "soft-story" apartment buildings and 1,451 or so concrete structures shore their properties up so that they might withstand a major earthquake.

The approval, likely to mirrored by the body with the last word on the matter, the City Council, will allow landlords to raise rents by as much as $75 a month to pay for the crucial retrofitting. which could cost $5,000 or more for each unit.

For the common soft-story apartments of the 1950s and '60s, often built over ground-floor garages and held aloft by skinny pillars, safety upgrades would require erecting load-bearing walls between those poles.

Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that 1,800 people will die when a magnitude 7.8 or greater earthquake strikes Greater Los Angeles, which is just a matter of time. A vast majority of those deaths would come from soft-story and pre-1976, brittle-concrete buildings, she said.

Some advocates for apartment dwellers are worried about the cost of living, literally, however. Los Angeles has the least affordable rents in the nation, and one in two low-income Angelenos pay half their income on housing. 

"We need to address the threat of earthquake," Larry Gross, executive director of the renters rights group Coalition for Economic Survival, told us recently, "but we don't want to create an economic earthquake for a tenant who won't be able to afford this increase and will likely be displaced from their home."

City officials have promised to work out a better deal under which tenants would pay about half the amount of the retrofits.

Separate legislation would address the amount landlords will be allowed to "pass through" to renters. As it stands, interest groups seem to be settling on a City Hall–brokered proposal that would have landlords and tenants split the costs evenly, leaving renters to pony up an extra $38 a month or less.

But the mandate approved by the Housing Committee would pass all the costs on to renters — for now.

Gross says that if the $75 deal remains, people will be displaced from their homes on a large scale. Homelessness, especially car dwelling and shantytown-like encampments, has exploded in Los Angeles, making the city's housing crisis a national disgrace.

Even the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, no friend of the everyday renter, agrees that $75 would be too much. The landlords' group is amenable to a deal that would keep rents lower and more enticing for is customers. It's members could also reap the benefits of retrofit tax break legislation that's awaiting the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Under City Hall's plan, landlords of soft-story buildings would have as many as six years to make the improvements. Owners of brittle concrete buildings, which include some schools, hospitals and office buildings, could take as many as 30 years.

Mayor Eric Garcetti called the Housing Committee's unanimous vote "an important step in getting this sweeping seismic safety legislation into action."

"It's critical that we move on this historic issue — these retrofits to some of L.A.'s most vulnerable buildings will have life-saving consequences for Angelenos when the inevitable Big One hits," he said.

While Garcetti said Los Angeles is working "to lead the nation in seismic resilience," San Francisco began working on the same issue a decade ago and launched retrofitting work in summer. 

The full City Council was expected to take up the retrofit mandate Friday.

UPDATE at 2:40 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, 2015: The council unanimously approved the mandate.

Despite San Francisco's years-long head start on retrofitting its own quake-prone structures, Garcetti said, "We’re leading the nation in requiring this level of building safety retrofit before, not after, the big quake we know is coming."

While San Francisco started retrofitting in summer, the L.A. mandate will allow apartment-building landlords two years "to conduct an assessment and obtain permits" and another five to finish the work, according to the Mayor's Office. Owners of brittle-concrete buildings will have 13 years to facilitate inspection and assessment and another 12 to complete the work if it's necessary.

"The Northridge earthquake was a lesson for emergency preparedness and prevention," said Councilman Gil Cedillo, who helped to introduce the mandate. "The more we can do up front to brace ourselves for an earthquake, the better off we will be at the moment one strikes."

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