A majority of Mountain View City Council members agreed Tuesday night that the city should adopt a mandatory seismic retrofit program to prevent older, structurally weak apartment buildings from collapsing in a major earthquake.
The preliminary decision, made in a Sept. 4 study session, was regarded as the only effective path to bring aged residential buildings into compliance with modern building codes. But council members approached the idea with a heavy dose of skepticism over whether landlords would be able to recoup the cost of safety upgrades under the constraints of the city's rent control law, and concerns that it could lead to more rent-controlled apartments being torn down.
Under a mandatory citywide retrofit program, property owners would be required to make seismic upgrades to residential buildings that have a "soft-story" ground floor deemed structurally weak and vulnerable to collapse in a strong earthquake. A recent survey commissioned by the city found that Mountain View is home to an estimated 488 soft-story buildings, representing about 16 percent of the city's total housing stock.
Taking a softer approach to the problem through a voluntary incentive-based retrofit program would likely be ineffective, according to city staff. Other Bay Area cities like San Francisco and Berkeley -- which have mandatory programs -- originally took a voluntary approach and found very few landlords willingly pursued the seismic upgrades. The soft-story survey report made clear that "substantial citywide risk reduction" can only be achieved through a mandatory program.
"I think it's really important these be addressed before the next major earthquake, if at all possible," said Councilman Chris Clark. "I think it's best to approach this with a mandatory program."
The biggest concern among council members was whether the retrofit program would amount to an unfair burden on property owners who can't easily pass on the costs to tenants under the city's 2016 rent control law. Landlords would need to go through a petition process and convince a hearing officer that they did not receive a "fair rate of return" that year due to investments in seismic improvements.
Although a mandatory retrofit program would not necessarily mean property owners would be able to pass the costs on to tenants, a voluntary program would mean landlords would have to eat the costs. Capital improvements that are required to comply with local laws can be included in a petition to increase rents, whereas discretionary upgrades can't be included.
"If it's a mandatory program, it's not an absolute guarantee that they can recover (the money) in a rent increase," City Manager Dan Rich said. "But if it's voluntary, it's an absolute guarantee that they cannot recover it."
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said a mandatory program would need to come with some kind of support from the city, whether it be a low- or zero-interest loan program to carry out the construction work or financial assistance using affordable housing funds. She suggested that the money could come from housing impact fees from developers, which could potentially be used to offset the costs to landlords.
"We either have to make it voluntary and hope for the best or make it mandatory and ensure that there is funding available for them to do it, and that may mean that we just have to fund it ourselves," Abe-Koga said.
Taking a similar approach, Councilwoman Lisa Matcihak said the city should explore ways to "100 percent" fund the retrofit work, possibly through grants. Without that kind of financial help, Matichak said she couldn't back a mandatory retrofit program.
"I can't support having a cost that we're placing upon housing providers that they don't have a way to recover," she said.
Councilman Ken Rosenberg said he worried many property owners are going to crunch the numbers and find that bearing the full cost of the retrofit work simply isn't worth it, and that it would be a better return on investment to simply tear down these older buildings and replace them with units not constrained by rent control.
"There was a reason I didn't support rent control all these years," Rosenberg said. "This is just unintended consequences coming back to bite people in the butt."
A majority of the council -- Mayor Lenny Siegel and council members Pat Showalter, Clark, and Rosenberg -- said they supported the idea of a mandatory retrofit program. Council members John McAlister and Abe-Koga expressed concerns about the burden on property owners but did not explicitly oppose the idea, while Matichak said she couldn't support a retrofit program without strong financial support from the city.
Taking stock of the situation
Ahead of the Sept. 4 council meeting, Mountain View city staff released a list of hundreds of addresses with suspected soft-story residential buildings, encompassing more than 5,000 rental units across the city. The Voice's created a searchable map of the buildings.
The list, which the Voice acquired through a state Public Records Act request, was put together by a consultant tasked with figuring out which properties in Mountain View could be subject to a seismic retrofit program.
For several months this summer, city officials declined to post the list publicly, calling it a preliminary way to take stock of buildings that might be at risk rather than a definitive roster of vulnerable housing units. Some of the buildings, following a detailed inspection, may be deemed safe and not in need of retrofit work. Following the Voice's repeated inquiries, building officials, citing an unexpected level of public interest, released the list of addresses on Aug. 30 -- albeit with most of the survey details removed.
The survey, conducted by structural engineer David Bonowitz, identified 488 suspected soft-story buildings that have at least three residential units, a total of 5,123 housing units representing about 16 percent of the city's total housing stock -- similar to the percentage of earthquake-vulnerable homes in Oakland and San Francisco.
The data shattered older estimates compiled in a San Jose State University study, which identified 111 buildings and 1,129 housing units at risk of collapse in a sizable earthquake.
The survey shows that the vast majority of the potentially hazardous homes follow a similar trend -- two- and three-story rental housing structures built between 1950 and 1980 with parking on the ground floor and housing units above. While building designs and layouts vary significantly, more than half of the 5,123 housing units have what's called a "long side open," meaning that the structural vulnerability is along the long side of a rectangular building.
Residential buildings identified in the study range from having one single vulnerable housing unit to as many as 184 units on a property. In the Shoreline West neighborhood, for example, the study found 53 small multi-unit rental properties totaling just under 200 housing units are potentially at risk. Larger buildings with more than 40 units, primarily along streets that including Latham Street and Escuela and Montecito avenues, account for 1,700 of the soft-story units listed.
The area bounded by Shoreline Boulevard, Showers Drive, Central Expressway and El Camino Real represents the most densely packed region of potentially dangerous buildings, accounting for roughly half of the units identified.
A large portion of the city, encompassing about a quarter of the housing identified in the report, is on ground prone to liquefaction, which increases the risk of buildings being damaged in an earthquake, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The liquefaction zone includes nearly all of the city north of Central Expressway, along with portions of the Old Mountain View and Shoreline West neighborhoods.
Building officials cautioned that the study is preliminary and subject to change, and that not all of the units on each identified property may be at risk. Mountain View is also on fairly stable ground compared to places like Foster City, meaning the liquefaction zone is not a significant factor in terms of public safety, according to Shellie Woodworth, the city's chief building official.