Earthquake-safety upgrades of vulnerable buildings in San Francisco laid out 

Contractor Henry Karnilowicz, standing near a soft-story site near Grove and Divisadero streets, supports the new rules. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Contractor Henry Karnilowicz, standing near a soft-story site near Grove and Divisadero streets, supports the new rules.

After years of debate and study, San Francisco on Tuesday laid out a plan to make “soft-story” buildings more resilient during the next big earthquake.

The proposal targets the 4,300 wood-frame residential buildings of three or more stories that contain at least five units and were built before 1978. Nearly 3,000 such structures are mostly found in the Mission, Western Addition, Richmond, North Beach and Marina neighborhoods. They are considered most-prone to collapse during a strong earthquake because the bottom floor, or soft story, is not as stable as those above it.

Coming up with a mandated program has been politically challenging. Costs to retrofit the buildings are expected to range from about $60,000 to $130,000 per building, or about $16,000 per unit, according to city reports.

The Mayor’s Office said about 15 banks have agreed to offer low-interest loans or refinance existing loans to help pay for the work, but declined to name the financial institutions. And subsequent legislation is expected to be introduced in the coming months to offer a public financing option.

The proposal also includes some politically sensitive financing measures. It would allow building owners to pass 100 percent of the costs of the upgrades on to tenants, which is allowed under existing law for capital improvements. And if the costs exceed $130,000, that could trigger full compliance with accessibility requirements required under the Americans With Disabilities Act and California law. Otherwise, if costs are under that amount, a building owner would only have to spend 20 percent of the total construction costs on accessibility upgrades. Soft-story work is estimated to take between 60 and 90 days.

“This is the next major step to ensure that we are prepared for the Big One, which we know with a two-thirds certainty will strike over the next 30 years,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who introduced the legislation along with Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Scott Wiener. “Our city must put in measures to address safety risks of soft-story buildings.”

San Francisco Apartment Association spokesman Charley Goss said the organization is supportive of the proposal because “an owner is given sufficient time and financing options.” Under the proposal, affected buildings would undergo an evaluation. Those determined to require retrofitting would have different deadlines to complete the work, but all affected buildings would need to be in compliance by December 2020.

Henry Karnilowicz, head of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco and a general contractor, praised the current proposal and said, “We can’t keep waiting.” He said the deadline of 2020 was not too long because, “It will give people the chance to get bids, to shop around and to get it done right.”

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