Quake-safety tax gains supporters 

Owners of residential buildings susceptible to earthquake damage could soon start receiving city money to pay for strengthening the structures.

As part of a broader effort to strengthen San Francisco’s soft-story buildings, Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to ask voters in November to approve a $39 million bond to pay for the seismic upgrades of more than 100 buildings with units offered at below market rates.

There are up to 4,400 soft-story buildings that are considered San Francisco’s most vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. They are wood-frame structures built before 1974 that have “very little interior support.” “When the ground shakes, the top moves [and] the bottom collapses like toothpicks,” a mayoral staffer said.

Soft-story buildings have collapsed in past earthquakes, most notably in the Marina district during the Loma Prieta temblor.

The bond money only would be offered for 156 buildings, of which 125 receive city or federal funding for affordable housing and 31 are single-room occupancy buildings. It costs about $275,000 to seismically upgrade a soft-story building.

The money would likely not be paid back to San Francisco. It would be repaid if there is a decrease in affordable housing, which is not probable.

If placed on the ballot and approved by voters, the bond would be funded through property taxes. A single-family residence assessed at $500,000 would pay $6.73 more per year in property taxes.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee signaled its support for the program, but objected to calling it a “retrofit-loan program.” The committee continued a vote on the resolution for one week as the language is worked on.

“I feel a little bit squeamish calling this a loan,” Supervisor John Avalos said. 

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said calling it a “loan” is “false advertising,” but said the board would likely approve the proposal for the November ballot.

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