Experts say West Hollywood property owners may struggle to afford mandated earthquake retrofits

So far, only a few dozen of the 821 buildings that could potentially need retrofits have been repaired.

Last year, West Hollywood officials released a list of 821 buildings that were determined to be at risk of damage during an earthquake. More than a year later, only about 50 of those buildings have been repaired for earthquake preparedness, city records show. The costs of retrofitting these buildings can be staggering, and present a significant challenge to property owners.

Ninety percent of the properties on the city’s list are soft-story buildings, which are multi-story buildings that have a weak first story as compared to the stories above, making them vulnerable to damage or collapse in an earthquake. The remaining 10% of buildings have concrete and steel frames. Many of the buildings on the list were built in the 1950s and 1960s, which according to Ramin Zargari, a structural engineer and founder of a soft-story retrofit company called RZ Engineering Corp., may be attributed to the fact that there was an overhaul in the construction style of buildings in the 1970s. He said that buildings built since the 1970s are generally more resistant to earthquake damage.

Based on a fault activity map of California released by the California Geological Survey, over 100 buildings on the list fall inside a fault zone – specifically, within 500 feet of the Hollywood fault line, which runs along the Sunset strip. Most of the properties that fall within the fault zone are soft-story buildings.

Thomas Heaton, professor of engineering seismology at the California Institute of Technology, said that while buildings sitting on top of or close to a fault zone are at a higher risk of damage during an earthquake, none of the buildings in the area would be safe.

“If we had an earthquake on the Hollywood fault, I’d rather not be on the fault,” he said. “But frankly, all of Hollywood – I would rather not be there.”

The cost of retrofitting a soft-story building can range from $40,000 to $160,000, according to a city spokesperson. The spokesperson added that there is no funding available for the retrofits at the city or state levels.

Under a city ordinance that went into effect in April 2018, property owners of soft-story buildings that require retrofits have five years to complete construction from the time the city notifies them. Some large property management companies like Ben Leeds Properties, which owns about 150 properties in the Greater Los Angeles area, are on track. A company representative overseeing the company’s retrofit program said that she is already collaborating with engineers to have buildings inspected.

However, independent landlords who own few properties face significant financial hurdles. Many are already limited in their rental income because of the city’s rent control policies. In addition, the city does not generally require tenants to share the costs of retrofitting with landlords, which means that the costs fall entirely on property owners. According to Zargari, the deadlines mandated by the city are generous to ensure the feasibility of repairs for property owners. A timeline of five years may provide owners time to secure funding for repairs.

Many tenants living in buildings that could need a retrofit have not been informed that their building is on the list.

Chloe Jenkins, who lives in one of the buildings on the city’s list, said that she had not heard from her landlord about a potential retrofit, and was concerned that retrofit constructions could mean that she would have to move out. But moreover, she was concerned the building would collapse in an earthquake. Five years, she said, was too long.

Another tenant, Tyler, who asked to be identified by his first name only, said that his building was built in the 1920s, and that he had also not been informed by his landlord of the possible retrofit. Like Jenkins, he was concerned for his safety and about the impact of a retrofit construction on his living situation. Still, he added that earthquakes are a part of life here.

“I’ve lived in LA my whole life,” he said. “I’ve been through lots of earthquakes. I’m aware of the potential risk, but I don’t think about it every day.”

In the absence of city or state level funding or financial assistance for retrofits, some alternatives have emerged. Clearinghouse CDFI, a community development bank, offers a loan product designed exclusively for earthquake retrofits. However, according to Kristy Ollendorff, Chief Credit Officer at CCDFI, the company has not made any loans to Los Angeles property owners since the program was started approximately five years ago.

“Whenever buildings are rent-controlled, [property owners] absolutely cannot afford that extra mortgage payment because the amount of income [they make from rent charged] does not support the extra debt. Secondly, it’s very difficult for our borrowers to be able to refinance their first mortgage,” said Ollendorff, explaining that when property owners refinance, their interest rates may increase.

“[Property Owners] are going to wait until the very end, and they’re going to just scramble,” said Ollendorff, referring to the city’s five-year deadline. “I don’t get the phone calls from people who say, ‘I just don’t feel like it’. I get the phone calls from people who just bought [their property] 10 or 15 years ago, and they have the rent but the rents aren’t enough to justify this extra half a million or million dollars in expenses for retrofits.”

Ollendorff added, “The cities put mandates on, but they don’t give solutions for how [property owners] can accomplish [what is mandated]. Time and time again, buildings collapse, and people die in those buildings.”

Melissa Eastwick, a resident of one of the hundreds of soft-story buildings that have not been repaired on the list, was home during the July 4 earthquake this year. Like Jenkins, she said she had not received a notice from her landlord, and added that she does not expect him to have the building retrofitted soon.

“Since that earthquake, there are so many cracks in our apartment,” she said. “We live on the second floor, and there are cracks over the doorway, in our shower – the tiles actually cracked.”

Eastwick, like many other West Hollywood residents, lives in a rent-controlled building. She said she cannot afford to pay higher rent, and does not plan on moving. Like many other residents of the city, she has concerns about the future, but can only hope for the best.

“I’m praying that we don’t have another earthquake,” she said. “It’s a gamble.”

A small proportion of the buildings on West Hollywood’s list are concrete non-ductile buildings, or buildings made of concrete columns, which seismology expert Heaton said are at the highest risk during an earthquake, and also the most difficult to retrofit. For that type of retrofit, engineers have to change the way the steel is connected inside the concrete.

“The problem with them is that when they start to fail, they’re very dangerous,” said Heaton. “If you lose the columns in a concrete building, you’re not likely to survive… In my opinion, [in an earthquake], I wouldn’t be in either [type of building], but I’d much rather be in the soft-story building than the non-ductile concrete building.”

Heaton said that most of the people occupying the concrete non-ductile buildings are unaware of the risks. Because these types of buildings are so difficult to repair, the city allows property owners 20 years from the time they are notified to get retrofit constructions done.

Heaton said that officials have been aware of the earthquake hazards of soft-story as well as concrete non-ductile buildings since the 1970s, and that it is mysterious to him why it has taken several decades for the issue to be taken seriously. He said that the 2008 Great California ShakeOut Scenario may have finally spurred officials into taking action.

Today, Heaton said, architects in California are continuing to make mistakes in designing buildings, and are not considering the state’s natural environment. The last major earthquake in California happened over a hundred years ago, and destroyed 80% of San Francisco.

“We’ve been really fortunate since 1906, but there will come a time when Californians will all be questioning what we’re doing here,” said Heaton. “Why do we live here? It’s like our fire problem. Things are tough to solve, but here we are. We’re not moving out.”