Last year, the City of Los Angeles passed a sweeping seismic retrofit ordinance. The Ordinance No. 183893 (“Ordinance”), which is aimed at improving the seismic resiliency of the City, envisions a building evaluation and retrofit process that will span the next three decades and is likely to affect over 17 thousand buildings. Retrofits, which are likely to cost up to $130,000 for wood buildings, and millions for concrete buildings, are a significant financial burden for building owners. Furthermore, a large percentage of affected buildings are within the City’s rent stabilized zones. To ease the burden on landlords of rent controlled buildings, the City has decided that the retrofit cost for such buildings shall be distributed equally between the tenants and landlords. Affected landlords will be allowed to increase rents by $38 per unit, for a period of up to 20 years, to recoup 50% of the retrofit costs. In sum, the Ordinance is likely to cost a lot of money, affect a lot of people, spur the construction industry in LA for the next few years, and above all, make Los Angeles substantially safer.

Ordinance is precisely aimed at improvement of pre-1978 wood framed soft story apartments. A large percentage of 1960s and 70s California apartment buildings have been constructed with the so called “tuck under” parking layout. Stated another way, such apartment buildings, as illustrated in Figure 1, have car parking spaces at the first level of the building and residential spaces at the levels above.

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While attractive and popular when constructed, such buildings have performed poorly during earthquakes in the past 35 years, with some of them suffering partial collapse during the 1993 Northridge/Los Angeles earthquake. The main reason for their poor seismic performance is that the first story of the building is “softer,” that is, lesser in seismic stiffness and strength as compared to the rest of the building. Consequently, the first story is the weakest part of the building and most susceptible to collapse under earthquake loads. Colloquially, such buildings are called “soft story buildings,” or “soft story apartments.”

The first part of the Ordinance deals with buildings of this sort. City officials have curated a list of 13,500 properties that have been classified as soft story buildings. Property owners have been sent preliminary notices informing them about the Ordinance and its applicability on their buildings. Within the next two years, the City plans to issue an Order for each affected building mandating compliance with the Ordinance’s requirements. Upon issuance of the Order, the property owner must, within one year, submit for City approval one of two documents: either a structural analysis report indicating compliance with the Ordinance’s seismic resistance requirements, or in the alternative, engineered plans and drawings showing upgrade of the building in compliance with the Ordinance. Thereafter, if the City decides a retrofit is needed, the owners must procure all building permits needed for construction within a period of two years, and the construction must be completed within 7 years. Furthermore, after the issuance of an Order, the property owners must provide notice to incumbent and prospective tenants to the applicability of the building. Finally, the Ordinance also provides that owners of rent stabilized buildings must provide a Tenant Habitability lans that offers alternative accommodation to tenants that are affected by retrofit construction.

In its second part, the ordinance tackles concrete buildings constructed before 1977. Like soft story building, old concrete buildings have also performed poorly in past earthquakes. The procedure for concrete retrofits is similar to the one described above for wood buildings. However, the time limits have been extended. After initial notification, concrete building owners have 3 years to submit an analysis report, if needed, 10 years to submit a more detailed report with construction drawings, and 25 years to complete the retrofit.

While some property owners in LA have started preemptively addressing the mandate, several procedural and substantive provisions of the Ordinance will likely get clarified as more buildings are vetted under its requirements. Stay tuned to this blog for updates on this issue.