City Council Tackles Condo, Soft Story Ordinances By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday October 18, 2005

The City Council will take up soft story buildings tonight (Tuesday), an amendment to the city’s condominium conversion ordinance and a host of other measures ranging from approving the budgets of local Business Improvement Districts to a renewal of the city’s needle exchange program. 

Soft story buildings are structures especially vulnerable to earthquakes because of large openings for storefronts or parking. Most are wooden buildings, but some are built on a large concrete slab supported by quake-vulnerable concrete or concrete blocks. 

A visual city survey identified nearly 400 larger apartment buildings with soft story vulnerabilities which could render 95 percent of the structures with nearly 5,000 rental units uninhabitable in the event of a major temblor. 

A great shake would inflict loss of housing, injuries and death on many tenants and leave owners facing loss of income and massive repair costs. 

Loss of tax revenues would hit city coffers hard at the very time major repairs were needed in the local infrastructure. 

One major question still to be addressed, according to the staff report by City Planner Dan Marks, is the question of how owners can recoup their losses. Since at least 70 percent of the units are renting at or above current market rates and earning more than a fair return on investment, current ordinances would prevent passing the costs of retrofit on to tenants. 

As a first step toward implementing the retrofit program, Marks has recommended that the city adopt Chapter A4 of the International Existing Building Code, which “offers the most current and highly developed version of nationally recommended standards” for analysis and retrofit problem apartments. 

The code wouldn’t lead to immediate reoccupancy, but would prevent catastrophic collapse, Marks said. 

The ordinance up for adoption tonight paves the way for the retrofit program by: 

• Placing identified buildings on an “Inventory of Potentially Hazardous Buildings.” 

• Requiring owners of the structures to notify tenants and the public about the condition of their structures. 

• Giving owners a two-year window to submit an engineering report analyzing the buildings’ seismic adequacy. 

• Requiring the city building official to prepare guidelines and amendments to deal with soft story buildings with non-wood-framed ground stories.  

• Adopting the new building code chapter. 

Later legislation will deal with such issues as deadlines for retrofits, implementing an appeal process for owners who feel their structures were improperly listed and development of a fair and effective mitigation program. 

“Our only commitment has been to evaluate existing conditions,” said Marks. The next steps could include a decision to enforce the retrofits, “but only if that’s what the council decides.” 

The proposed amendments to the condo conversion ordinance would: 

• Eliminate limitations on the number of vacant units before conversion is allowed. Under the current ordinance, conversions are allowed only with vacancy rates of 25 percent or less. The revision would eliminate this restriction, which city Housing Director Stephen Barton says would “greatly reduce the competitive advantages of condominium conversion over TIC (tenancy in common) conversion. 

• Bar conversion to condominiums for 20 years after an owner used the Ellis Act to go out of the rental business and evict all tenants, and for 10 years if the evictions were used to make the units available for the owner to occupy. 

• Revise the city’s conversion ordinance, which allows conversion of 100 units annually based on the number of tenants who sign notices of intent to purchase to give double weight to tenants who have occupied a property for five or more years. 

• Exempt inclusionary units, which must continue to be affordable to current lower-income tenants. 

• Exempt conversion to condos of tenant-in-common units established before August 1992, from the 100-unit limit and exempt them from payment of housing mitigation fees required of other conversions. 

Additional amendments to the condo ordinance will follow from a Jan. 17, 2006, workshop with the city council and will address fees and other issues that need to be addressed before the existing 12.5 percent conversion fee expires on Jan. 31. 

Two items listed on the consent calendar may spark some controversy. 

The first is a joint resolution by Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak, Darryl Moore and Linda Maio asking that the city reaffirm two earlier votes calling for the demolition and removal of the UC Berkeley Bevatron and the building that houses it. 

The second proposal, drafted by Councilmember Dona Spring, calls on the city manager to write Library Director Jackie Griffin and the library’s board of trustees to: 

• List the actual and estimated costs of implementing the controversial RFID program;  

• Ask why the existing bar code checkout system isn’t being used instead. 

• Ask the trustees to seriously evaluate whether it’s in the best public interest to continue with the RFID program. 

The council meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the second floor chambers at the old City Hall building, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.C