Cars are crushed underneath tilted apartment buildings after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. (Los Angeles Times)
A Los Angeles councilman's call for the city to consider creating an inventory of thousands of so-called soft-story apartments that could collapse during a major earthquake is already generating debate.
This first-of-its-kind list would apply to buildings in Los Angeles built before 1978 with at least two stories and at least five units.
Councilman Tom LaBonge's proposal marks the first significant seismic safety effort in Los Angeles in years. It comes four months after San Francisco passed a landmark law forcing owners to strengthen about 3,000 soft-story apartment buildings. City officials there estimated the retrofits — which involve strengthening the bottom floor — will cost $60,000 to $130,000 per building.
During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, about 200 of these buildings in the L.A.-area were seriously damaged or destroyed, including the Northridge Meadows apartment complex, where 16 people died. After that quake, L.A. city building officials talked about identifying other soft-story buildings and requiring owners to retrofit them. But the proposal died.
LaBonge described his plan as a first step in assessing the seismic safety issues and figuring out how many such buildings there are.
"I had it investigated internally in my office and said, 'OK, let's look at this,'" he said. "And the truth of the matter is, we should be very cognizant that there will be another earthquake. Because this is earthquake country."
LaBonge's proposal calls on city officials to figure out how to identify potentially dangerous soft-story residential buildings across the city. Councilman Jose Huizar, who seconded LaBonge's motion, said through a spokesman that he hopes his City Council planning committee will discuss the idea soon.
Among the most common soft-story buildings are apartments and condos with ground-floor parking under residential units. In these structures, the bottom level is supported by skinny, fragile columns that can be crushed or shoved aside during shaking of the heavier upper floors.
At the Northridge Meadows apartment complex, the top stories pancaked onto the first story, which contained both apartments and parking. All 16 people who died were on the first floor.
Adding a strong structural frame to the bottom floor and installing sturdy walls can keep the ground floor upright during a quake.
Soft-story residential buildings are considered one of the three most vulnerable building types in a major earthquake, said Lucy Jones, seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. The others are made of bricks or concrete.
"Getting rid of softer stories will save a lot of lives," Jones said.
Efforts to require retrofitting for soft-story buildings will probably face opposition from apartment owners and tenant rights groups — at least if there's no plan for financial help.
"Clearly, we have enormous concerns about this proposal and the possibility of tenants facing substantial rent increases from pass-throughs of costs," Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, said in an email. "The buildings that are likely going to be impacted are those housing the city's lowest income renters living in the inner city."
Jim Clarke, chief executive of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, said he doesn't mind the creation of a list of soft-story buildings — but forcing retrofits would hurt property owners if they can't afford to do them and are unable to pass on the costs to their tenants.
"Forty-three percent of our members are senior citizens," Clarke said. "A big hit like that would be devastating."
Beverly Kenworthy, executive director of the Los Angeles division of the California Apartment Assn., said the city should help property owners pay for any required fixes.
"Some of these mandatory laws can create a hardship," she said, with many properties owned by couples who "don't have access to a lot of capital."
"We don't think it's a bad idea — there just needs to be a type of funding mechanism ... to help property owners pay for it," she added.