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Some Oakland Landlords Forgo Retrofitting Thousands Of Quake Prone Buildings

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OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Every time there’s a quake come the reminders about being prepared and the need to upgrade old buildings. But some owners are skipping the retrofitting altogether.

Oakland resident Nikole Harmon says the Napa earthquake didn’t just rattle nerves, it rattled her entire apartment building.

“It felt like a rollercoaster to me,” she said.

She lives in a building that’s one of the hundreds in the area that have dangerous designs that could mean collapse in a large earthquake.

“Hopefully I’m not in the building,” she said. “That’s all I care about.”

They’re called soft story buildings. Many balanced on inclines with heavy residential units on top and dangerously hollow garages on the bottom. Oakland building official Deborah Sandercock describes it this way.

“If you put a big block of something on a stick and it shakes back and forth, the stick will eventually break,” Sandercock said. “That’s kind of the situation you have when you have a soft story building.”

Thousands of Oakland residents live in them and yet KPIX 5 found out that Oakland has no law requiring that the owners of these soft story buildings retrofit them.

So Steve Spiker’s non-profit Open Oakland worked furiously to finish an app that maps Oakland’s earthquake vulnerable buildings.

“After the Napa earthquake we realized that it really is important and we’re looking at potentially hundreds of houses in Oakland that could actually be damaged,” Spiker said.

He hopes it will spur Oaklanders to start calling for change. But the reality is Oakland is still scrambling to enforce a 20-year-old ordinance requiring the owners of brick buildings to reinforce them.

Dozens of owners are still neglecting retrofitting, opting instead to pay $15,000 fines.

“San Francisco is going to start suing building owners,” Sandercock said. “We’re not there yet.”

Sandercock says Oakland will issue more notices to owners. And she’s hopeful a law requiring that these soft story buildings be updated is not far off.

Both San Francisco and Berkeley already have ordinances in place requiring soft story buildings to be upgraded. Officials in Oakland are hoping to have a similar ordinance in place by year’s end.

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