L.A’s soft-story seismic retrofit ordinance is protecting people right out of their homes

By Richard Fliegel

Fliegel is president of the Villa Milano Homeowners Association in the Villa Marina development.

Villa Marina condo owner Ora Cameron can’t afford the seismic upgrades mandated by L.A. City Hall
Photo by Richard Fliegel

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s soft-story retrofit ordinance may have been intended to save lives during an earthquake, but the law itself has proven to be a disaster for homeowners who can least afford to bear its cost.

All single, double and triple-family structures are exempted, so when it comes to homeowners the ordinance falls squarely on condominiums — the least expensive owner-occupied housing in any neighborhood. It applies to structures built before 1978, so the cost is borne disproportionately by young families starting out and elderly homeowners on fixed incomes.

Ora Cameron is nearly 80 years old. A widow on a fixed income, she has owned her home in the Villa Marina development for 30 years. The risk to her life in an earthquake is remote. Her home is not in a fault zone. No part of it is supported on poles. It is bolted to its foundation, with shear walls in her garage. The Northridge quake knocked a vase off her mantelpiece but failed to crack the paint on her walls.

But because her garage door opens on an alley, Cameron is subject to a retrofit bill far larger than her ability to pay.

According to bids from licensed engineering firms, the 36 members of Cameron’s homeowner association would have to raise more than half a million dollars to satisfy the L.A. Department of Building and Safety.

The cost to the Villa Marina development, of which they are a part, would run over $9 million.

While the city’s new soft-story law may take legal form as an ordinance, in reality it amounts to a whopping tax on condominium owners, providing “protection” people like Cameron have not asked for and cannot afford.

And the ordinance might not protect her, after all. No one can say precisely when, where, or how large an earthquake will occur, but the retrofit ordinance assumes an earthquake of a certain size. For a smaller one, its specifications are excessive; for a larger one, inadequate.

Seismologist Lucy Jones, who chaired the city advisory committee, said during a 2016 conference that Los Angeles residents are statistically less likely to die in an earthquake than in a car crash, act of murder or a lightning strike. The more common risk is bankruptcy, but the L.A. ordinance would exhaust the resources of Cameron’s community ahead of time.

To cover the cost of the ordinance, an assessment will have to be imposed on each homeowner. Estimated by the mayor’s office at $5,000 to $10,000 per household, real bids have run $12,000 to $15,000. But even those figures are misleading, since the work cannot be done on a per unit basis.

In a condominium, decisions are made collectively and costs have to be shared equally by all homeowners in an association. Many of the people in Cameron’s development are retired, on fixed incomes, or raising young families. What if they can’t afford the assessment?

The only legal recourse open to their association is foreclosure. No one wants to do that, says the president of one association, but the city has left associations little choice. They’ve imposed this huge expense that has to be shared equally. Selling their homes is the only way some of our people can cover their share.

The soft-story retrofit ordinance makes even that more difficult to do. There is no cap on the amount that the city can require an association to spend. Potential homeowners may avoid buying into an unknown assessment, banks may be reluctant to provide loans, and insurance companies are always eager to raise their rates. If so, the effect of the ordinance on the values of these homes will itself prove disastrous.

The ordinance has already begun to take its toll on the value of condominiums, perhaps because the advisory committee who wrote it included members from engineering and construction firms, but none from the condominium community. One real estate agent describes a potential buyer who asked for $50,000 to be set aside in escrow and, after learning about the ordinance, walked away from the sale.

The residents of the Villa Marina development have begun to organize. They’ve started a petition asking the mayor and city council for the same right to self-determination enjoyed by all other homeowners in Los Angeles. There’s an online petition, and plans are underway for letter-writing, print media and social media campaigns.

We shared the unintended consequences of the ordinance with the mayor’s Office of Resiliency weeks ago, and they’ve listened to us but have yet to offer any relief. And the financial squeeze has been made even tighter by a second ordinance that will require condominium owners to rebuild after a major earthquake. The city’s concern is for “housing stock,” which is to say for the buildings rather than the people who live in them.

Meanwhile, Cameron and her neighbors hope to keep their homes as the city continues to insist the work must be done.