Seismic risk of soft story structures goes unheeded

Soft story structures, like this apartment block on Regent Street, are particularly vulnerable in quakes. Photos: Lance Knobel

Soft story structures — buildings with large openings at ground level for garages or tuck-under parking — pose a particular hazard of serious damage, including collapse, in seismic activity. Because of the danger, Berkeley passed its soft story ordinance in 2005, mandating that soft story buildings with five or more units notify tenants of the danger and perform a seismic analysis. But, if a walking survey on Saturday is any indication, the ordinance is going largely unheeded.

Rent board commissioner Igor Tregub organized the survey as part of what he called a “seismic compliance day of action”. Tregub and his interns picked several dozen buildings from the city’s soft story inventory, and led a tour of the buildings. The idea was both to see whether the ordinance was being followed and to alert tenants to the potential dangers. The survey was a personal project of Tregub’s, not an official rent board initiative.

None of the 15 buildings visited on Saturday had any visible notice, contrary to the requirements of the ordinance. There were also no signs of retrofits, which would increase the safety in the event of a quake (retrofits are not required by the ordinance).

Examining a soft story structuring on Channing during Saturday's tour

“This is a good first step to alerting people to what we’re doing in the city,” said councilmember Linda Maio, speaking before the walking tour. “It’s critical to do this. We’re talking about a lot of students living in these buildings.”

“These are probably the first apartments students have been living in,” said Michael Ellison, ASUC housing director. “They don’t know what to look for.”

The intent of the ordinance was precisely to overcome that lack of knowledge. When buildings are identified as potentially hazardous, the ordinance requires “a clearly visible warning sign” reading: “Earthquake Warning. This is a soft story building with a soft, weak, or open front ground floor. You may not be safe inside or near such buildings during an earthquake.” The sign must be at least 8×10 inches and the first two words must be at least 50-point bold type. Additionally, tenants must be notified in writing of the hazard.

According to Tregub, more than 75% of the buildings surveyed earlier this year by the city are not seismically retrofitted, and would be susceptible to partial or total collapse in a large quake. Efforts to mandate seismic retrofitting of soft-story residential or mixed-use properties by the City of Berkeley and to enforce the existing ordinance have been stymied over a lack of funding, staffing, and prioritization, he said.

Tregub said there is active discussion at the staff level in the city about creating a “phase two” of the ordinance that would mandate seismic retrofits for soft story structures.

As poor as compliance may be in structures covered by the ordinance, Tregub and Maio pointed out that many buildings with fewer than five rental units also posed a danger and are not covered by the law.

Phyllis Fox, a civil engineer who joined Saturday’s walking tour, said she lives near a house on Etna Street which has two apartments over a garage. Although she has explained the danger to the landlord, she said he has no interest in acting. She hopes an amended ordinance might force some action.

“We’ll work on figuring this out,” Maio said. “It will need both the rent board and the city council to take action. We’re going to have to have a financing mechanism for it to work.”


Cal building rated very seismically unsafe [03.25.10] 

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  • BBnet3000

    The elephant in the room for all urban parts of the Bay Area. I toured an apartment in a soft story building, and im glad i didnt end up living there.

    The day the last soft story building is retrofitted or replaced in the Bay Area is the day that we can at least pretend we’re safe in the event of an earthquake. Not having a soft story isnt a guarantee that a building will survive a big one, but having one is a guarantee that it wont.

  • Will the Luddite

    But would the Rent Board allow the cost of the retrofit to be passed along proportionally to all the units?  I doubt it.  Your reporter apparently didn’t report on it if the Rent Board commissioner was asked.

  • Wow, I biked by one of these today (On Vine, near Shattuck) and thought about sending a picture to you guys.

    This building had a single pole holding up a huge section of the building, about 20 feet (two parking spaces) from the nearest wall. This pole was the only thing holding up about a 300+ square foot section of the house. The shear-wall strength in that garage was horrible, I would never live there. It’s a death trap.

  • berkeleyhigh1999

    landlords are not the victims. They may suffer financially but the tenant is the one that could die. Second of all they purchased the building in its current state and are usually more informed and educated about modern building codes than an average tenant.

    If they are not educated on building construction perhaps they are not qualified to be a landlord.

  • There are plenty of soft story buildings in Berkeley that were built before the ’89 earthquake and that weathered it well enough to still be here.

    They’re certainly not safe, but they aren’t guaranteed to collapse in a major earthquake either.

  • I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think anyone is forcing the tenants to rent apartments in buildings with soft story construction and I don’t think all apartment buildings in Berkeley are soft story structures. If the renters find it so objectionable, perhaps they could make the informed and educated decision not to rent in one of those buildings.

    At least nobody is building *new* structures like this. They *are* dangerous after all. But clearly some people are willing to take those risks.



    In all rent-controlled jurisdictions in
    California, the Costa/Hawkins (C/H) law allows an
    owner to establish a market rent upon vacancy.  This legislation overturned that
    provision of the Berkeley rent control ordinance
    which allowed no increase with a change of tenancy. 

    The Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board (RB) regulations
    currently  allow for rent increases for [specified] capital improvements.  These are awarded over a
    limited period of time so as to, in effect, amortize the improvement over its
    lifetime.  For
    example, a four-unit building is re-roofed at a cost of $20,000. 
    The owner would then qualify for an increase
    of, say, $100/month for 20 years, equal to $25/month/unit.  If all four
    tenancies dated back to before the passage of C/H, each tenants’ rent could be
    increased $25 for 20 years.  .   
    Since C/H, however, the RB has added a step.  If
    any tenants are paying a rent
    established after C/H became
    effective, any increase over what the controlled rent would have been had there
    been no vacancy is deducted from the rent increase for the capital improvement
    to which the owner would be otherwise entitled.  To continue the example, if one
    tenant has just moved in and is paying a rent of $1000 whereas the old rent
    without a vacancy would have been $800, there is an offset of the difference,
    i.e. $200.  The $100 increase which is awardable due to the installation of a
    new roof is wiped out by this $200 offset and therefore, no rent increases would
    be granted for any of the four units in the property. 
    The offset dissuades owners from capital
    improvements in general and seismic upgrades in particular.  It is unnecessarily punitive.  Low-rent tenants should pay their share
    (as defined and set by the RB regulations, not the owner, not the market) for
    these improvements and market-rent tenants will generally not be subject to the
    increases, even if granted, because their rents are held in place by market
    The City of
    Berkeley deserves serious responsibility for the
    inadequate code requirements which were in effect when these soft-story
    buildings were built.  The Rent Board is making it this situation worse but virtually
    disallowing pass through of any retrofit costs.  The
    application of the offset to seismic
    upgrade projects is unconscionable and makes the Board complicit in
    any consequences which may ensue.
    Might the Board muster the political courage
    to put ideology aside and facilitate rather than hinder seismic upgrades?  I personally doubt it, but would be more than happy to be surprised.

  • libraterian

    As a prior poster made clear, these building were built to the then current city’ code. If retrofit is mandated, the city and the rent board will face an unwinnable lawsuit unless equitable pass through of the cost to tenants is allowed.

    To be fair and fully disclosing, the required ‘unsafe building’ signs should be appended with further information, e.g.:

    The tenants is this building pay 50% of market rate rent ($500/mo vs. $1000/mo). If each were to allow their rent to be raised to amortize the cost of seismic improvement ($75/mo ) I’ll start as soon as I can get a permit from the city. 
    Signed, The Landlord. 

  • Pamitha

    Even in ones that are marked, there is the issue of landlords verbally pooh-poohing the issue. I visited an apartment that looked lovely until I saw the toothpicks supporting it and the warning sign. When I told the landlord that no way would I rent in an un-retrofitted soft story building he told me that the sign was ‘just a formality’ from the city and an engineer had looked at the building and declared it ‘perfectly safe’. 

    We have so many students moving here who are unfamiliar with earthquake dangers and building codes, they will be easily taken in by things like this and then lose their belongings and dwellings in a major quake. 

  • Berkeleytard

    Maybe the ordinance should be amended to require that all soft-story structures be painted DAYGLO ORANGE, top to bottom, with the added stipulation that the city will do it for you after 90 days and attach the bill to your property taxes.


    Sounds like a typical Berkeley solution to me.  The City creates a problem (soft-story buildings facilitated by woefully inadequate seismic codes), blames it on someone else (the law-abiding builder, now long dead, who followed the codes) and then makes a meaningless gesture by making the City uglier and uglier (dayglo orange would go well with the baby blue recycling cans).   Don’t solve the problem, just call attention to it in a most offensive manner and and then send the bill to the official municipal scapegoat, the current owner who cannot finance a retrofit because of the laws of that selfsame City. .    

  • Anonymous

    A structure on stilts in a place where earthquakes happen makes zero sense. Why were soft story buildings ever built in the first place? Who is responsible for this movement in architecture?

  • libraterian

    “We have so many students moving here…”

    Now it’s the student’s we need to protect from earthquakes? I thought it was stay at home bloggers and alleged progressives who needed protection from market forces in order to provide that ‘special something’ to our mise-en-scène.

    Rent control does more harm to students than any other group of prospective tenants. Students learn and leave. And with vacancy de-control only our hard core peanut gallery gets the expensive subsidy, year after year. While effectively removing what should be student housing from the market for decades.

    It gets more delicious, the city agency running the business of rent control costs Berkeley taxpayers $4M a year. Including honcho Jay Kelekian @$175k/yr and free health care coverage and a stipend to a board comprised of stars like Chris Kavanagh (who went to jail rather than admit he didn’t even live in Berkeley) and a former zoning boarder, thrown a bone for years of hilarious BTV performances. 

    With the assistance of staffers collectively pulling down $910K in benefits(!), this stalwart crew manages to accomplish what all other US cities do without a rent board. Plus of course, operate the rent board.

    If the local version of rent control, now serving Berkeley’s long in tooth Peter Pans, is an essential social service, then Peoples Park is a an urban green space enhancing the health and well being of all Berkeley’s citizens.

    Consider reading with an empty stomach:

  • Jesse Townley

    2 things:
    1. You’re assuming that tenants are being notified, which the article clearly shows that of the 15 soft story buildings checked, ZERO had legally required signs. (And yes, ALL of these buildings received FREE signs from the city this Sprint, and yes, there ARE fines allowed under the ordinance that the Planning Department has not allocated staff time to levy)

    2. Even if there IS a sign, here’s a comment from a few posts down: “When I told the landlord that no way would I rent in an un-retrofitted
    soft story building he told me that the sign was ‘just a formality’ from
    the city and an engineer had looked at the building and declared it
    ‘perfectly safe’. “

  • Jesse Townley

    After years running & serving on the Board of Easy Does It Emergency Services and 8 years on the Disaster & Fire Safety Commission (including 2 years as Chair), I was elected to the Berkeley Rent Board in part because of my work on earthquake preparedness. On the D&FSC we helped update the seismic requirements for single family homes (called “Plan Set A”) in coordination w/ the Building Official. We also pushed for the Soft Story Ordinance and in 2005 we all called for Phase 2 (the part with teeth that mandates retrofits) to be done within the announced 2 year window. Nothing happened. (Apparently, not even legally-required signs)

    I’ve been working closely with Councilmembers from both sides of the Berkeley political divide on directing staff to come up with Phase 2. Councilmembers Arreguin & Capitelli have given a roadmap for the process and an affirmation of the signage issue to their colleagues and to the City Manager’s Office.

    Contrary to what some here have posted, the Rent Board is coordinating closely with the City Manager’s Office on getting this started. The process is going way too slow.

    Pass-throughs to tenants are a big part of the discussion. Back when I was 1st elected in 2008, some tenant advocates were fearful of mandatory retrofits because they felt that unscrupulous property owners would use pass-throughs to effectively evict legal low-income tenants. Thankfully, that fear has diminished as they’ve understood the clear threat of concrete crushing bones and killing men, women, and children.

    As the Rent Board’s point person for seismic issues, I would’ve been at this soft-story tour but I was in Los Angeles on business that I couldn’t cancel. I am glad that there were so many people there from the government and the community to highlight this problem.

    Finally, we need to break out of bureaucracy-speak and recognize what this is about: slabs of concrete crushing children’s heads, pinning women inside crumpled cars in collapsed garages, and slicing men open with shattered shards of glass, plastic and wood, as well as burning trapped survivors alive in the subsequent fire.

    The next city meeting about this is ** open to the public ** this morning, 9:30 AM, City Hall, 6th Floor Redwood conference room. It’s the 4×4 meeting, which includes the Mayor & 3 City Councilmembers, the Chair of the Rent Board and 3 Rent Board members (including myself), and staff from the City Manager’s Office, the Planning Department, and the Rent Board (among others).

    The agenda & more information is here:

  • Aloeiscious

    I can’t think of anything more unfair than forcing landlord’s with net worths of >$1million to pay for seismic upgrades to their ugly apartment buildings.

    Oh wait. Yes I can.

  • Anonymous

    Calling attention to the problem is part of a “market solution”.  There needs to be a differential in the market value of unimproved units.

  • libraterian

    I think Lance Knobel could have balanced this coverage better. These soft story buildings were built to code. They are ubiquitous throughout the nation. No law has been passed here to require their retrofit. This isn’t a landlord plot, it’s a failing of public will.

    Every in-law unit or bedroom over a garage is a soft story problem. Not to mention the dozens of potentially lethal hazards in all old buildings; from asbestos clad furnaces to lead paint to romex wiring. Should we be posting signs on our residential doors? After all, our guests might not be aware.

    And the vivid description of blunt trauma given below has the ring of fervent and frequent delivery. However one might add that with the poor state of seismic retrofit in our whole housing stock, soft story residents will be a small percentage of the total body count.  

  • Anonymous

    Note to City Council Members |  The sign posted on just such a death trap cracker-box apartment building near me lasted no less than 2.5 weeks at best, before thermal solar shock, wind and then rain destroyed it.  Solution and Suggestions :  Make such postings out of “weatherproof materials” and post them in conspicuous places and then check up on them at random times and charge for missing signs ( yes fines ) as some people have a way of, well how to say this, not being as concerned about the letters of the law as frequently and may have accidentally removed them — on purpose.  Not good, as so many young people from out of state are oblivious to such matters of simple human safety living on top of seven ( 7 ) major earthquake fault and these so called buildings are really just thin stucco and gypsum board with no structural integrity or engineering prowess. Translation : A death trap that will implode or explode and pancake and not withstand a good 5.6 Magnitude direct ground zero quake or even less on the Hayward fault.

  • Bruce Love


    Can you tell me the difference in market rate rents for two nearly identical soft-story units that differ only in that one is seismically upgraded, the other not?

    If there were no rent stabilization at all, then that is the amount of rent increase you could get on a pass-through.  I’m skeptical that the City’s formula is giving less, at least in most cases.

    It could just be that some of these buildings are, in the hindsight of history, real dogs with no redeeming business plan for them possible in the long run.   Can’t blame the city for that.

  • Commissioner Harr

    ICeland, why not actually send that to council?

  • libraterian

    This soft story story is a beautiful example of Berkeley’s Ponzi-Progressives approach to problem solving:

    – Start with a problem every other city has.

    – Politicize it. (e.g.: Greedy landlords vs. poor tenants) 

    – Wake up an “Only in Berkeley” taxpayer funded $4M/yr bureaucracy to “meet on the problem” (the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.) 

    – Involve Berkeley’s elected officials – who bought their seats by agreeing to sell our city’s financial future for public employee union support in return for fronting a ponzi scheme of unsustainable raises in staffing levels, salaries and benefits —  funded by ever increasing taxes. 

    – Add a tax. Linda Maio uses the preferred local term “funding mechanism”.


    Till now, parcel taxes, one-time taxes and ballot initiatives have kept Berkeley’s Ponzi-Progressives’ scheme from collapsing. In case you were wondering, that’s why Berkeley’s taxes increase and City services decline.

    It’s what happens when a ponzi scheme falls apart. The last ones in (me and most of my friends, maybe you too) get crushed under the weight of unsupportable obligations.

    That’s a real soft story. 

  • Anonymous

    The Sharkey, the ’89 quake wasnt particularly big nor close to the Bay Area, nor was it on the Hayward fault.

    The damage from the 89 quake, like the Bay Bridge, the Cypress/Embarcadero viaducts and the soft stories in the Marina District built on fill, were the absolute most low hanging fruit there was.

    A repeat of the 1868 San Leandro quake could be devastating to these buildings. Sadly, sometimes thats the only way to get rid of them.

  • So an earthquake isn’t “major” unless it knocks down all/most/some soft story apartment buildings?t

    USGS estimates the 1868 earthquake at being around 6.8-7.0 in magnitude. Roughly the same strength as the 1989 earthquake.

  • I’m always shocked at the way that a City government that’s constantly crying poor and begging for more parcel taxes doesn’t bother to take the time to go after easy money like the fines for a lack of signs here.

    As for people who trust the safety of themselves and their family on the word of others without any verification, well, even with all the retrofitting in the world you just can’t fix stupid.

  • There is. Some people won’t rent apartments in them, which reduces the pool of potential renters.

  • Thumbs up.

  • Berkeleytard

    Which presumes an informed consumer, and that requires disclosure.  Need to make it REALLY OBVIOUS to the renter what’s going on.