Friday, January 23, 2009

The "Soft-Story" Problem and Earthquake Safety

Another Issue for Condominium Conversions

A recent article[1] in the Los Angeles Times[2] highlights an old problem that may have new consequences. The Northridge earthquake occurred 15 years ago and many southern California apartments suffered extensive damage as a result. One complex in particular however, was deadly. The Northridge Meadows apartment complex collapsed on January 17, 1994 and killed 16 residents. The collapse was due to a weak first story. Since the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, experts have known about the problem where parking or big windows exist under the upper floors of a building, and there were efforts in many cities to beef up building codes to prevent building collapse in a seismic event.

The article points out that many landlords took steps to perform interim structural repairs, but that in many cases those repairs were not permanent or were not done at all. The small posts, for example that support upper floors over carports cannot withstand the movement that occurs in an earthquake.

“In the case of Northridge Meadows, the magnitude 6.7 temblor caused the second and third floors to crumple right down onto the lower floors, leaving some cars poking out of the sides of the buildings. Its collapse caused the largest number of deaths in a soft-story building. The 16 people who died were on the first floor”[3]

Government agencies have not exactly been on a fast track to force repairs. Fremont is reported to have sent out notices to the owners of 28 apartment buildings in 2007, the year its enhanced codes went into effect, but only two have completed the necessary retrofit. In Berkeley where 320 buildings have been identified with soft first stories, only half have applied for correction permits.

Our concern, however, is for the numerous condominium complexes that have been converted from older apartment buildings. We have seen many that were built before 1994 and some which appear to have soft first stories--mainly where parking exists under the second or more stories of the building. Our experience is that Boards of Directors of community associations responsible for these buildings barely have sufficient funding to do routine painting and roof repairs. The cost of a seismic retrofit is not only unbudgeted, but probably could not be funded short of a large special assessment which would have to be approved by the owners. An expense of that magnitude could be the difference between economic survival and obsolescence.

We recommend that any suspected “soft-story” condition be immediately inspected by a structural engineer. If the conversion has been recently done, the seller may be responsible for the costs of a retrofit if one is necessary. But in any case, the Board and the owners will need assurance that if the “big one” hits the Hayward or the San Andreas Fault, Bay Area communities will not suffer the same fate as they did in Northridge.

[1] My thanks to Fred Pilot and Evan McKenzie for providing this article.

[2] Chong, “Quake vulnerability of ‘soft-story’ apartments in state still widespread,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2009

[3] Ibid.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Reader Views the Future of His Community

Jack Denman is a reader and our occasional correspondent and President of his homeowners association. Taking our concerns to heart, Jack has worked hard to stave off the financial obsolescence troubling many associations and of which we have so often written. Here is his account of the success he achieved in convincing members to raise assessments to stay even with the true cost of ownership. But the most interesting part of his letter is his discussion of future redevelopment and how to achieve a positive financial return while greatly improving the project. This is not fantasy--it is a glimpse into the future.  TPB


I became president of the board this year and had discussions with the other members on a monthly dues increase. Over the last nine years I alone made recommendations (and received support) to raise the dues from $186 in 1999 to $250 today. I'm still on the board. Who says that miracles don't happen nowadays!?

Since I knew it could be a "land mine" with the membership, I was able to convince the other members of the board to write a lengthy explanation to the membership to justify the increase. I wrote the original draft and the other members contributed to the final version.


One member scratched off or scribbled something unintelligible on the first installment of the increase.

I prepared the latest budget because I have the most financial experience on the board. I took the last 8 years of data and did a linear regression analysis on each item and made a calculation, not an estimation on this most recent budget. On a few items I did an average where the correlation coefficient was low.

I have included the letter of notification and justification and the latest budget.

It's "all your fault" that we are aging gracefully as a 40 year old association. Soon I will begin to lay the plans for redevelopment when we someday become obsolete. It's a long ways off, and I won't be here, but we should, if future residents are to maintain their equity. My idea for redevelopment is to rebuild from two stories to three, increase the living space by 50% in area, provide subterranean parking to reclaim lost space now consumed by carports, and finally to use all steel and aluminum construction and finally to sell new additional 40 units for enough to cover the cost of construction to the current 40 residents so that they pay nothing. I might look to the city of Fullerton for a bond issue to cover the cash gap until the new 40 units are sold. When the real estate market improves the city might look favorably on a bond because of the future tax revenue from the additional units.

My nephew, who owns a escrow company, and lives in San Diego, said "But where will the people go during the reconstruction?" I told him that they will leave one way or another because of obsolescence. It's only a case of coming back to something better than what they left when it's all over.

Happy New year,


Jack C Denman