Soft-story building in San Francisco’s Marina District (photo: U.S. Geological Survey)
Residential tenants in San Francisco, already squeezed by some of the highest living costs in the country, are facing the prospect of higher rents after the city approved a major seismic retrofitting program for 3,000 so-called soft-story buildings.
The much-needed upgrades will protect some 60,000 people who live and work in the wood-framed buildings, which are at least three stories high and built before 1978. Row after row of Victorian buildings, built in the early 20th century, often sport big bay windows and garage doors that take up space where a load-bearing wall might otherwise be.
Officials estimate that upgrade costs could run between $60,000 and $130,000 per building, but owners will be able to pass the costs along to tenants via rent increases over 20 years—even those protected by the city’s rent control law. Tenants with incomes below $78,000 a year can apply for a hardship exemption to lessen the blow and a separate ordinance is being considered to automatically exempt single parents on welfare and senior citizens on permanent disability.
But in a city where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has climbed to $2,175 a month, a lot of people are nervous. Originally, the plan was to have tenants appeal for exemptions through the city Rent Board, an onerous process that tenant rights advocates have ridiculed for years. But that idea has been replaced by an untested, streamlined process still under development.
Building owners have up to seven years to complete the retrofit after receiving notice that their structures need the fix. The ordinance was signed by Mayor Ed Lee last Thursday, the day after the 107th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake that destroyed the city.