Some Local Landlords Face Expensive Retrofit Costs, Their Tenants the Prospect of Temporary Displacement

City Council approves modified ‘Soft Story’ retrofit ordinance; new law would mandate the retrofit of older, wood residential buildings built between 20s and 70s.

Published : Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | 6:21 AM

Images courtesy Titan Contracting Services

Calling it a “public safety issue,” but mindful of the costs involved, the Pasadena City Council Monday approved the creation of an ordinance requiring the retrofit of older, wood soft-story residential buildings citywide.

Following the presentation to the Council by Building Official Sarkis Nazerian, Councilmember Victor Gordo voiced his concerns about the costs to landlords and homeowners, saying he had recently done such work to a property he owns and was very surprised at the cost.

“We need to be mindful of significant costs,” he said.

Given those concerns, the Council amended the original recommendation to include provisions that would exempt buildings with four or fewer units, and adjusted the time frame to complete the retrofitting of all affected buildings to seven years instead of the original five.

“We should do this now,” said Councilmember John Kennedy. “It’s the moral, legal and right thing to do,” he said, adding that “the marketplace will dictate the costs of such projects,” which one property owner estimated at $30,000 per apartment.

The recommended ordinance would apply to all existing wood-framed or partially wood-framed multiple-family residential buildings with 4 or more units, two or more stories with the ground floor or basement containing parking or other similar open-floor space that causes soft, weak, or open-front wall lines and where the structure was built under the building code standards enacted prior to January 1, 1978. Commercial buildings, hotels and motels are not included.

Single-story multiple-family structures are also not included since they do not meet the criteria for soft-story, said the report.

Councilmember Margaret McAustin, who asked for the modifications to the ordinance, also voiced concern about the displacement of residents, but Planning Director David Reyes assured her that any tenants affected by the work would be covered by the City’s tenant protection ordinance, which would cover moving costs.

“We’re going to have to find dollars,” said Councilmember Tyron Hampton, who stressed that the City “needs to do all we can to save affordable housing.”

Reyes also told the council that the City would likely receive a State grant for the work, but that that money would likely only cover design costs and not actual construction. It was estimated by the staff report that total costs could exceed $45 million, citywide, and that the grant would only cover a small portion of the total costs. The grant might become available in the fall, said Reyes.

The City previously implemented a local retrofit program in 1993 which mandated all unreinforced masonry buildings to be either retrofitted, vacated and boarded up, or demolished by 2007.

According to the staff report, the program was successful in achieving 100% compliance, but there are still other categories of vulnerable buildings which exist in the City and throughout Southern California, such as wood soft-story buildings.

There are approximately 472 wood soft-story buildings in Pasadena containing approximately 4,500 units, the staff report noted. Most wood soft-story buildings were constructed between the 1920s and 1970s.

Currently there is currently no federal or state requirement to retrofit soft-story buildings, but California state laws regulating Building Code adoption and California Health and Safety Code Sections 19101 and 19162-63.6 authorize local jurisdictions to establish local retrofit standards “so long as the requirements are justified by local climatic, geological and topographical conditions,” said the report.

A growing number of jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, and San Francisco have already implemented local mandatory retrofit programs.

“The overarching goal of the proposed ordinance is to increase the safety of the City’s residential building inventory,” the report noted.

“In addition to safety considerations,” the report added, “development of the proposed regulations also considered the cost and timing, of the retrofits, possible tenant displacement during the repairs, loss of parking spaces or other deviations from zoning standards resulting from the retrofit, and financial assistance to property owners.”

The cost of retrofitting will vary depending on the building’s age, the number of stories, the number of units and its existing structural strength. Cities, such as Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, San Francisco and Berkeley, have generally estimated retrofit costs as being anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per unit and $40,000 to $160,000 per building.

City staff will return to the Council within 60 days with a modified version of the new ordinance.