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New, Massive List Lets Renters See If Their Apartments Need Earthquake Retrofits

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More than half of LA's 13,500 vulnerable buildings are located in the Valley and on the Westside

Is your apartment vulnerable to collapse in the event of an earthquake? It's a fear in the back of many Angelenos' minds, but one that City Hall wants to put to rest in the next few decades. Last year, LA City Council passed a law that requires owners of apartment buildings vulnerable to collapse during an earthquake to have their structures retrofitted within seven years.

About 13,500 wood-framed, soft-story apartment buildings in total were cited by building inspectors as potentially in need of retrofitting, but until today, residents had no idea if they were living in a potential earthquake death trap. Luckily, the LA Times has put together a searchable database of apartment buildings cited for retrofitting.

The need to retrofit is going to affect certain neighborhoods much more than others. In the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside the numbers look particularly daunting. More than half of the soft-story buildings cited as seismically vulnerable are located in those two regions. Officials found nearly 3,200 of these kinds of apartment buildings in the San Fernando Valley in need of retrofits, a finding that affects over 75,000 rental units.

On the Westside, inspectors noted the Palms neighborhood in particular as being especially vulnerable. On one six-block stretch of Mentone Avenue alone, they found more than 90 structures that made the city list.

Neighborhoods like these that experienced mid-century booms in housing also fell prey to a mid-century apartment design that has proved deadly in major earthquakes. "Dingbats," an easily recognizable form of the soft-story building, feature rental units built on top of parking spots, supported by just a few vertical columns in lieu of a solid foundation. When an earthquake hits, the columns buckle, and the building pancakes, coming down directly onto whatever is below it.

The list will be of particular interest to renters who reside in cited buildings, not just because their safety is on the line, but their finances as well. Construction of new housing in LA is hardly keeping up with the already outrageous demand, and the city can't afford to lose any of its precious rental units to an earthquake. The Northridge earthquake offers a stark reminder of the implications a quake can have on LA's housing market. Damage from the 1994 earthquake took 49,000 apartment units off the market in a single morning. A similar event today could be catastrophic for LA's rental market.

The retrofits aren't cheap either. It can cost anywhere between $60,000 to $130,000 to get a soft-story apartment building up to snuff, and someone is going to have to pay for them. Earlier this year, LA City Council voted unanimously to allow landlords the ability to pass fifty percent of all retrofitting costs onto their tenants. Landlords will be able to raise rents $38 per month over a ten year period to help cover the cost of retrofitting, seismic evaluations, and interest on loans taken out to pay for construction costs.

While this does seem like a rather large cost to add to LA's already overburdened rental community, it's actually a decrease in what landlords could have charged under existing law. Before the City Council vote, LA's housing laws allowed for landlords to increase rents by $75 per month to pay for earthquake retrofitting. City officials are investigating tax breaks and financial assistance programs to lighten the financial burden, but no solid plans have yet emerged.

It should be noted that the city's list is not final, and not all properties named will necessarily need to be retrofitted for earthquakes. The list was compiled by a combination of combing through city records and inspectors walking door-to-door in search of vulnerable buildings. Upon closer inspection, some properties could get a pass from the city on retrofits

Compliance orders for the retrofits are being mailed out next month, first to owners of large apartment buildings (16 or more units), then to owners of smaller soft-story buildings. From there, property owners have a few options. They have two years to either prove the structure can withstand seismic activity or submit plans with the city to either retrofit or in some cases demolish the property altogether. The entire retrofit must be completed within seven years of receiving the compliance order.