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Some Los Angeles apartment owners and renters will see their expenses rise in the coming years.

Confronted with a possible catastrophic loss of life following a Southern California earthquake, Los Angeles City Hall backed a law Wednesday requiring building owners and tenants to equally split the cost of seismic upgrades to thousands of residential units.

The sweeping law calls for a cap on rent hikes of $38 a month while the improvements are done over a 10-year period for an estimated 13,700 soft-story buildings. It can cost $3,000 to $10,000 to seismically retrofit an apartment unit, building experts say.

The ordinance applies to all pre-1978 wood-frame residential buildings with four or more units. Lawmakers want the retrofits completed within the next decade.

With Los Angeles at risk for a massive earthquake in the next 30 years, officials contend the law is urgently needed.

The City Council action comes 22 years after the Northridge earthquake, which destroyed about 200 soft-story apartment buildings. Sixteen people died at the Northridge Meadows apartment complex in the quake, the biggest concentration of deaths in the city.


Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo said the ordinance ensures the city’s low-rent housing stock, typically older buildings, are safe.

“One temblor could wipe out our affordable housing stock,” Cedillo said.

Several California cities already require retrofitting of wooden soft-story buildings, defined as structures that have an open parking or commercial space on the bottom.

“Dingbat” buildings, an architectural style seen in the San Fernando Valley and other parts of the city, are considered soft-story structures. The buildings are vulnerable because the wooden poles can topple during an earthquake.

City lawmakers last year ordered seismic upgrades to soft-story buildings, but Wednesday’s law clarifies who pays for the retrofit costs, an issue that’s divided tenants and building owners.

Neither side expressed satisfaction at Wednesday’s outcome.

While the law caps renters from paying more than $38 a month extra for the upgrades, Larry Gross, executive director for the Coalition for Economic Survival, said the increase will still hurt renters.

“Tenants may get a safer unit but will be saddled with a rent hike they can’t afford,” he said.


Property owners must apply for permits and then have 31/2 years to complete the upgrades.

Jim Clarke, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, questioned whether Southern California has enough qualified certified engineers to do the necessary work.

He also worried about price gouging by contractors or engineers.

The U.S. Geological Society last year stated California has a 7 percent chance of experiencing an 8.0-magnitude earthquake or greater. Previously, the risk was 4.7 percent.


The largest number of soft-story apartment buildings are in the Valley, Gross said. He also said that 99 percent of the apartment units affected by the new law are rent-controlled.


Reach the author at dakota.smith@dailynews.com or follow Dakota on Twitter: @dakotacdsmith.
Posted 10:59 PM

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