Fewer participating in San Francisco's soft-story retrofit program 

Nearly a year after San Francisco started a voluntary program for property owners to retrofit their soft-story buildings — structures city building officials have identified as among the most likely to collapse during an earthquake — only 26 people have participated in it. That is compared to the average of 40 or so each year before the program started.

The failure of the voluntary program isn’t much of a surprise: Before it was approved, city economist Ted Egan predicted it would only attract “one or two retrofits annually” beyond the normal averages.

But as the 105th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake approaches Monday, city leaders say the need for a mandatory program is becoming ever more evident.

The voluntary retrofit program went into effect last April. The idea was to encourage property owners to reinforce their buildings by waiving city plan review fees, which can run from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the project. But the program hasn’t worked, officials concede, because the costs of retrofitting are still steep even with a break on city fees.

Soft-story buildings are multiple-floor, wood-framed buildings whose first floor consists of a garage or a glass-fronted store that might not bear the load of the top stories during an earthquake. No one knows for sure exactly how many of these there are in The City because there has never been a building-by-building inventory, Department of Building Inspection spokesman William Strawn said.

However, the buildings city officials are most worried about — those with three or more stories and five or more housing units — have been estimated at 25,000, and can be found in every neighborhood in The City.

Early last year, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced legislation that would mandate the owners of these properties to retrofit their buildings. But that proposal was put on the back burner when funding ideas for the proposal didn’t pan out.

Now, city leaders are reconsidering a mandate. At a hearing this month on the soft-story issue, Supervisor Scott Wiener said The City has “been operating at times with our head in the sand,” moving slowly toward the inevitable.

“I personally think we do need to move toward a mandate,” Wiener said. “The voluntary program from what I can tell hasn’t really worked.”

But, he said, a mandate may need some funding source to help certain property owners who cannot afford to fund the retrofit themselves, or help pay for losses by business who find their ground-floor storefront the object of a major construction project.

At least two attempts to find funding — one through a Mello-Roos-style property tax, and a second by asking voters to repurpose bond financing from another project — have fallen apart, said Jason Elliott, Mayor Ed Lee’s policy adviser.

Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, said the organization has been very supportive of the voluntary program, and could even support a mandate. However, she said that would depend on the time limits and standards of retrofit imposed.

Longtime city inspector Laurence Cornfield said many of the property owners he has spoken to are willing to comply with a mandate — if the costs and timeline is reasonable. But the clock is ticking, he said.

“The challenges for all of us is to understand that this coming earthquake, this is not a theoretical issue,” he said.

Cost of upgrade keeps many out

Only a few people have decided to take The City up on its voluntary retrofit program, and Dave Lombardi is one of them. The reason he did it is simple: His son and grandchildren live in the Marina home.

But the decision hasn’t been cheap. Lombardi estimates that by the time the retrofit is complete, it will cost him $150,000.

“I’m not really getting anything for all that money, but I may sleep a little better at night,” he said.

Lombardi said he had been contemplating the retrofit before he heard about the voluntary program, and he decided to opt into it. He said he doesn’t think the incentives provided by the program are enough to motivate people to retrofit that wouldn’t already do it.

“I don’t expect many people to jump on it, and it’s certainly no big savings,” he said. Not every retrofit is as expensive as Lombardi’s, said Laurence Cornfield, a longtime city inspector.

He said if The City imposed a mandate on property owners, it would likely only require them to take some simple steps that will prevent the property from collapsing or suffering severe damage during a quake. Those steps can cost as little as $10,000 to $15,000 per unit, Cornfield said.

Lombardi was skeptical of this claim. He said most property owners will likely spend far more than that to reinforce their buildings.

“How could that possibly be done with $10,000? You can’t even buy a used car for $10,000,” he said.

1906 quake facts

As the 105th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake approaches, city leaders are debating the possibility of mandating property owners to retrofit soft-story buildings. Here are some stats from the 1906 quake and the damage it caused:

5:13 a.m.: Time the April 18, 1906 earthquake stuck
40 seconds: Length of time quake lasted
300 miles: Surface ruptured along the fault line
8.3: Magnitude of temblor
3,000: Deaths
225,000: Injured
$400 million: Cost of damage in 1906
Pacifica: Location of epicenter


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