Soft-story buildings

Let’s take a minute to think a bit about public policy. Think about when Oakland’s next major earthquake strikes. Remember, the Hayward fault is considered capable of causing an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 or even larger. According to a compelling memo by acting manager Henry Gardner issued last year on the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, Oakland could expect tens of thousands of dwellings to be lost in such an event. An estimated two-thirds of the people left homeless will be those living in Oakland’s stock of about 1100 residential buildings built with soft first stories—with garages or retail shops on the ground floor—that are less sturdy against earthquake shaking.


I’m not saying that the particular buildings shown in this post are deficient—only a building inspector can determine that—they just caught my eye during a recent walk. Soft-story buildings that collapse will endanger more than just the people living in them. A large fraction of buildings that collapse will catch fire and threaten their neighbors. Each multi-resident building lost will displace many more people than a single-family residence will. And all of these buildings are owned by landlords. (See approximately 1400 of them in this preliminary app from Open Oakland.)


Steps that save these buildings from collapse will go a long way to reduce the misery after a big quake. With intact homes, people can stay where they are, sleep at night, resume their jobs as soon as possible, avoid becoming someone else’s problem and help get the city back on its feet.

The solution being slowly considered by city officials, last I heard, would loan landlords the money for specific quakeproofing projects, at nominal interest. The tenants would pay back all or most of the loan over a period of 20 years.

Let’s look at that. Let’s say a $10,000 project would strengthen a soft-story building by bolting it to a beefed-up foundation, bracing the walls with plywood and so on. It’s elementary stuff, but of course it requires permits and inspections and so on. Say the city makes it easy: interest-free money, rapid permitting/inspection, simple paperwork, protections for tenants against gouging and eviction.

Who benefits? Well we all do, from the state of California on down. The city ensures itself (and by “it” I mean “us”) of one more intact residential building after the Big One. The neighbors benefit even more, and of course the landlord does too. But the tenants get the greatest benefit. Tenants get to live in a building that won’t kill them or send them to the streets.

Divide the cost of that benefit into 240 payments—once a month for 20 years—and that $10k becomes $41.67. It’s not nothing, but the benefit is immediate, significant and permanent.


There is never any urgency felt about this kind of preparation. The ground is quiet and we have so many other problems. In the city manager’s memo, the city was making noise about putting a plan to the City Council early this year. Two weeks later, I wrote a long post on the subject for KQED Science.

And now it’s no longer early 2015, there’s nothing online, and all I’ve heard is a Twitter post a month ago or so quoting a staff recommendation that tenants pay 100 percent of the retrofit loans.

What do you hear? What do you think?

One Response to “Soft-story buildings”

  1. withak30 Says:

    I suppose that we should be shocked that local governments are so hesitant to require landlords to fix potentially-fatal structural flaws in their buildings.

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