What it will take to earthquake-proof L.A.’s most vulnerable apartment buildings

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The recent earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan underscore just how vulnerable many parts of the world are to big earthquakes, including Los Angeles. As the old saying goes, it’s not a matter of if the Big One will strike L.A., only when.

To make sure the city is better prepared to take a hit from a big quake and recover quickly, Los Angeles has just started an ambitious seismic strengthening program. It targets up to 13,500 apartment buildings that municipal authorities say, after inspecting, are especially at risk of heavy damage or collapse in a powerful enough temblor.

Recently at the Los Angeles Convention Center, City Hall officials hosted a forum to explain L.A.’s new seismic retrofit ordinance to hundreds of apartment owners and building managers in attendance. They were told that strengthening their buildings to better withstand earthquakes was good for the preservation of their properties and the safety of their tenants.

Seismic retrofit forum at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city officials told apartment owners in attendance how the city’s new earthquake ordinance would help them and their tenants be better prepared for a big earthquake. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Under the new seismic retrofit ordinance, the city is focusing on strengthening wood frame, soft story apartment buildings constructed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Sometimes called “dingbat apartments,” these are structures where the apartment units, supported by thin metal columns, sit immediately above carports or garages. In a big enough quake, those metal columns could fail, bringing apartment buildings down.

L.A.’s seismic retrofit ordinance targets soft story apartment buildings in the city. They are structures where the dwelling units sit above carports or garages.  Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But at the seismic retrofit forum at the Convention Center, many apartment owners said they were unaware their buildings were at risk until they received notices in the mail from the city in recent weeks. The owners were also confused about how to begin repairs.

“I mean how do you even choose a contractor to go about doing it and how do they assess the situation? It’s kind of involved,” says Sarah White, who owns an apartment building with her mother.

Many apartment owners are also concerned about the cost of quake proofing their properties. Depending on the size of the job, that could range from $10,000 to $130,000.

But under the city’s seismic retrofit ordinance and agreement reached between owners and renter groups, half of the cost of strengthening buildings will be passed on to tenants through a series of rent increases of up to $38 a month.

Soft story apartment buildings are being targeted for seismic retrofit work because of their design, especially the thin metal columns that help hold up upper stories. In a big temblor, it’s feared the columns could snap or twist, causing buildings to collapse. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

To see what renters might know about the seismic retrofit program, KCRW went to South McLaughlin Avenue in West Los Angeles. On just one block of the street, 19 apartment buildings will need seismic retrofit work done, but none of the tenants we spoke to were aware of the program.

“I’m glad to see that they are strengthening it for us, but raising the rent, I don’t know if I like that,” says Brian Currier, one local tenant.

Soft story buildings are found across Los Angeles, with especially high concentrations in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles. Many streets have several apartment soft story buildings  that will need to be fixed under the seismic retrofit ordinance. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

As property owners and tenants begin the long process of strengthening their buildings and discussing cost-sharing, some worry about the sheer scale of L.A.’s seismic retrofit program and whether the city is up to the challenge of overseeing it.

“This is going to be a massive, says Larry Gross, with the Coalition for Economic Survival, which advocates for renters in Los Angeles.

“There are going to be more applications than they’ve ever seen before, and our concern is whether or not there are resources to adequately ensure the protection of tenants and enforcement of their rights,” says Gross.

To oversee the program, especially the handling of construction permits, the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department has opened a soft story seismic retrofit office. It is staffed with seven engineers and nine building inspectors. The Los Angeles Housing Department is also tasked with making sure tenants don’t get taken advantage of as seismic retrofit work proceeds.

But there are some who see economic opportunity in quake proofing Los Angeles. At the Convention Center forum, many engineering companies, which had been vetted by the city, were invited to set up tables and pitch their earthquake strengthening services to property owners. It gave the event the feeling of a seismic trade fair and showed how much work will be created by L.A.’s retrofit ordinance.

“It’s a big opportunity for a lot of companies, contractors, engineers, everybody in the business,” says Earvin O’Neill, an architectural and engineering consultant.

The city says all of the seismic retrofit work on L.A.’s soft story apartment buildings should be done by 2024.

Engineering companies offering their services at the seismic retrofit forum at the Convention Center. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

If you’re concerned about your building:  the mayor’s office has more information about the city’s plans to quake proof the city. And The Los Angeles Times has a database of buildings that may be of risk.