Report finds 5K MV homes at risk of collapse in an earthquake

Council to consider imposing retrofitting requirements

More than one out of every seven homes in Mountain View may be vulnerable to collapse in a major earthquake, a nearly five-fold increase over the city's previous estimates, according to a study released last month.

The survey of so-called "soft story" structures found that 488 buildings -- most of which are residential -- containing a total of 5,123 housing units are suspected of having structural vulnerabilities that, in the event of a quake, could cause the buildings to collapse. This makes up nearly 16 percent of the city's housing stock, which is slightly higher than San Francisco (14 percent) and Oakland (15 percent), and significantly higher than Palo Alto at 10 percent.

The commissioned study has been in the pipeline for years, and City Council members are planning to weigh in on whether to pursue a voluntary or mandatory citywide retrofit program, joining a growing number of California cities that have sought to safeguard residents.

Soft-story structures typically have a ground floor that's open on one or more sides for parking and commercial uses, and are vulnerable to the lateral back-and-forth motions of an earthquake, putting them at risk of "pancaking" if the first floor collapses. The vast majority of Mountain View's soft-story structures are two- and three-story housing with parking stalls tucked underneath.

The city's potentially hazardous housing belongs to a subset of buildings with three or more housing units, built with wood-frame construction between 1950 and 1980. It was a popular building style at the time, prior to major earthquakes that showed the destructive damage that could occur. The inadequate first-floor support is a recipe for "excessive lateral and torsional deformation," according to the study, which can cause the building to collapse, causing "deaths and injuries, a total financial loss, damage to adjacent properties and forced relocation for surviving tenants."

The numbers cited in the new 43-page report are significantly higher than prior estimates cited in Mountain View's 2015-23 housing element report, which relied on survey data collected by San Jose State University in 2003. The university refused to disclose the granular survey data, including specific addresses, but stated that there were an estimated 111 soft story buildings containing 1,129 units -- roughly 7 percent of the city's multi-family residential housing.

The university's technique for surveying buildings prone to collapse in 17 Bay Area cities was "ahead of its time" back in 2003, but had a clear tendency to undercount potentially vulnerable buildings, according to the new report. The same university study found that there were 130 soft-story buildings in Palo Alto, but that number turned out to be closer to 300 in a subsequent count.

City staff knew that San Jose State's study was likely inaccurate. The study was conducted in 2003 by college students who had to make judgment calls from sidewalks and couldn't encroach on private property, making it difficult to accurately assess which buildings might have structural deficiencies, according to Shellie Woodworth, Mountain View's chief building official. The more recent study, on the other hand, was done by prolific structural engineer David Bonowitz who had access to the city's database of multi-family residential properties and could view the parcels from multiple points.

Although the number of properties isn't expect to fluctuate wildly again, city staffers are reluctant to publicize the list of addresses, in part because some of the identified properties may turn out to be safe even though they have the appearance of a soft-story structure, Woodworth said.

"There is the potential to prove that it's not a soft story with a licensed structural engineer," she said.

The Voice has sent a formal request for the full list of addresses identified in the report as potentially hazardous buildings.

The largest concentration of soft-story buildings identified are in the city's "Central/Downtown" planning area. It includes the Old Mountain View and Shoreline West neighborhoods, with 132 soft-story buildings containing 844 housing units. The next highest concentration is in the Miramonte and Springer area, which includes several southwestern neighborhoods of Mountain View and Cuesta Park, and reportedly has 67 soft-story residential buildings totaling 667 units.

The popular soft-story building designs were built prior to 1978, when the building code was updated to address the structural deficiencies, but they still make up a huge number of homes in the Bay Area -- approximately 140,000 units across 18,000 buildings, according to a report by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).

"ABAG estimates that soft story buildings could account for approximately two-thirds of uninhabitable buildings following a major Hayward fault earthquake," according to a 2016 report. "Almost half of the housing lost in the Loma Prieta earthquake was soft story construction."

A path to safety

Now that the city of Mountain View has a firm grasp of how many homes are at risk of collapse, the big question is what to do about it. The City Council could choose to impose a voluntary retrofit program of seismic upgrades, or make it mandatory.

Voluntary retrofit programs are pretty rare and would need to provide a lot of incentives -- including subsidies and tax rebates -- in order to encourage property owners to make the investment. It would also need to come with a strong tracking system for compliance and specific criteria to ensure retrofits aren't just doing the bare minimum for seismic safety.

The growing consensus among California cities is that mandatory retrofit programs are both "preferable and feasible," according to the study. Cities like San Francisco and Berkeley started with voluntary programs only to replace them with mandatory requirements for seismic upgrades soon after. Although the study lists pros and cons for both options, it doesn't mince words on which one makes a real difference.

"Substantial citywide risk reduction comes only from mandatory retrofit programs, not from mandatory evaluation or from voluntary retrofit," the study states.

In the case of San Francisco, which has 10 times as many soft-story units as Mountain View, its voluntary program gave weak financial incentives for building owners to retrofit buildings for earthquake safety. A 2013 report by the San Francisco Public Press found that only 53 building owners had completed retrofits under the voluntary initiative, an average rate of 15 projects each year, putting the city on pace to retrofit all the potentially hazardous buildings in a couple centuries.

Mountain View officials will also need to set a clear scope for a soft-story retrofit program, including a cutoff for building age, height and number of residential units. Cities with mandatory programs generally include all buildings built before 1978 with two or more stories and five or more residential units, with a few exceptions. The retrofit program in Los Angeles includes non-residential and residential buildings, but has an exception carved out for housing with fewer than four units.

There's no engineering- or risk-based rationale behind the unit cutoff, according to the study, with many cities adopting scopes simply based on previous seismic safety programs. Another reason is differing investing and lending practices between multi-family housing with five or more units compared to smaller housing developments, the former being considered commercial real estate.

Three- and four-unit residential buildings make up 30 percent of the potentially dangerous housing, but only 10 percent of the total units in the report, meaning excluding smaller buildings wouldn't put a huge dent in the retrofit program's effectiveness.

Woodworth said it's up to the council to decide whether to make seismic retrofits mandatory, but she said an increasing number of cities in California are making it a priority to retrofit dangerous residential properties as a public safety measure, particularly for buildings with multiple families who can't do seismic upgrades on their own and are at risk of displacement if the building collapses.

"It's coming to light in communities overall in the state," she said. "It would make sense to do something like this, but again it's whether the council wants to make that the priority."

Who pays?

Best estimates show that landlords in Mountain View would have to pay a hefty amount out of pocket for retrofit work required under a mandatory citywide program. One San Jose report estimated it would cost between $9,000 to $20,000 per unit, while the Mountain View study projects a total cost range of $25,000 to $100,000 per building. That leaves city officials with a tough political and legal question: How much of those costs should be passed on to the tenants?

Assuming the city moves forward with a retrofit program, it will be up to the Rental Housing Committee to decide critical issues on how much of the capital costs can be "passed through" to tenants, the extent that retrofit costs can bump up monthly rent, and whether landlords would be on the hook for temporary tenant displacement during retrofit work.

In San Francisco, 100 percent of the retrofit costs can be passed on to tenants over the course of 20 years, but the monthly increase to rent is capped at $30 per year or 10 percent of the base rent.

Los Angeles took a softer approach, with a 50 percent pass-through policy and a cap on monthly rent increases at $38.

The Mountain View study, using a hypothetical $65,000 in retrofit costs and a range of building sizes and pass-through rates, concluded that the city's renters could expect a rent increase between $15 and $78 per month.

Multiple legal questions still remain unanswered, however. The city attorney's office has yet to weigh in on whether retrofit work is considered a capital improvement or a correction to an "unacceptable or substandard housing condition," which could have implications on the city's pass-through policy under the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA). The law is also murky with regards to temporary loss of housing services during retrofit work, and whether tenants would be eligible for compensation or a rent reduction if they lose access to parking, storage spaces and other resources that are out of commission for seismic work.

Rental Housing Committee member Matt Grunewald said he wasn't prepared to take a stance on the pass-through question quite yet, and said he would look for the precedent set in cities like San Francisco when it comes to cost-sharing, rental increase limits and amortization periods.

"I would find the benchmark set by other jurisdictions," he said. "Especially when it comes to developing policy for a new law."

Grunewald, who owns a rental property in San Francisco and had to retrofit his building under the city's mandatory program, said his tenants had recently moved in and were already paying market rate, meaning he essentially had to absorb the costs of the retrofit work. He cautioned that the price for coming into compliance and the time it takes to complete the improvements depends heavily on the market, and no construction company is eager for work right now.

"It is really difficult to find companies that have the time and bandwidth to do this right now, and the costs are at a premium," he said.

The study can be downloaded from the city website at

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Like this comment
Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 23, 2018 at 7:14 am

James Thurber is a registered user.

Earthquakes are a fact of life in California. So are earthquacks - also known as shaking ducks.

The majority of Mountain View small homes are built of wood and generally do OK in earthquakes although being moved off the foundation is a real risk. However, that doesn't represent a building collapse.

Even if the San Andreas or Hayward Fault were to toss a 7.9 plus quake our way it's much more likely that San Francisco would suffer the real damage with collapse (or tilt / fall) of multiple, excessively tall structures. Much of Mountain View would be OK.

Like this comment
Posted by Peet
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 23, 2018 at 10:07 am

Yes retrofit and raise rents an average even more - say $100 per month. Under MV's rent control law (Measure V), rents already increase every year and are unregulated on turnover. Plus, landlords can apply for still higher rents based on new "costs." $100 per moth would be "peanuts" compared to the doubling of rents that would follow the sneaky repeal of the rent control law in MV. John Inks, Michael Kasperzak and their landlord buddies are still having paid professional circulators seeking the signatures on their repeal measure from unsuspecting voters. There was a table at Costco Friday afternoon.

29 people like this
Posted by Landlord
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2018 at 10:56 am

If this is made mandatory, I am done with the rental business.

This is just the final straw from more local and new state laws that will have higher property costs for my business, which I can not absorb or pass thru to tenants because of the caps an the yearly increases. If this would not be a rent control city, I understand the situation of this, but I will not consider going thru the hops that the rent board will put me thru, nor can I show any lender that I would be applying for a loan to pay for the work as there will be no additional rental income to pay for another loan payment.

There is a new state water law that will allow only 55 gallons of usage per day starting in 2022, then down to 52 1/2 gallons per day in 2025 with fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 per day. These older properties do not have separate water meters and there will be no way to catch who is doing the laundry-shower-dishwasher all in the same day as that will exceed the 55 gallon limit per day. Having multiple people living in a unit only means higher costs to the property owner.

Any body who has been watching the rent board and seeing how they are treating a landlord will understand that we are not being treated fairly. Attorneys are being supplied free of cost to the tenant and they are treating this hearing as a court room. Why do they not supply attorneys to landlords for free? There is nothing fair about this rent control.

If the Voice would be fair on this matter and a actual news source, they would be reporting on what the current applicant, David ________, who is going thru the process of asking for a rent adjustment, what all he is required to do and supply to the board. That is news that the community should know about and decide for themselves if that is fair.

My property will go up for sale to the highest price developer.

2 people like this
Posted by Peet
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 23, 2018 at 11:20 am

Hey Landlord. As you know, the costs you are whining about can form the basis for an application for higher rents - if you are not getting enough through automatic increases and unregulated rent levels on turnover. As to selling to a developer, go ahead. But the developer will not pay much without knowing what can be built. And there is no legal right to demolish or build much of anything. So what you need are LANDLORD LACKEYS ON THE CITY COUNCIL AND RENTAL HOUSING BOARD. And you have them -but may lose some control after November's election.

19 people like this
Posted by @Peet
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 23, 2018 at 1:44 pm

You complain about the other side being not honest, just look in the mirror and see what dishonesty really is.

As I said, it is impossible to get ANY Rental adjustment, increases, thru the application process. They purposefully make it as difficult as possible demanding you produce hundreds of pages of documents, then they have their attorney playing legal games making it all but impossible for a landlord to comply with all the requests. Sure, a landlord could hire an attorney to fight it, but at $600 an hour, even if you where granted a small increase in rent, the attorneys bill would mean that a landlord would be even worse off financial.

Pay attention to what is going on and stop being dishonest about what the actual language is and what the REAL WORD CONSEQUENCES are of Measure V.

25 people like this
Posted by Karma
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2018 at 2:46 pm

This report just validates what many have been saying about these older properties, that they cost more to maintain and that they have lived beyond their livespan.

If the city declares that this is an emergency and mandates that this seismic retrofit happen, then that also means that these older buildings should be given an expedited path for review and approval for a building permit to redevelop the property.

Any attempt by the city to stop redevelopment after they declared them a danger to the community, will be met by many lawsuits against the city.

8 people like this
Posted by @Landlord
a resident of North Whisman
on Jun 23, 2018 at 8:26 pm

I think selling your property is the exact right thing to do. Setting regulation to require mandatory retrofit because _your property is unsafe and people will die_ is absolutely correct. If it's no longer economically viable to keep an unsafe building up then tear it down and build new.

6 people like this
Posted by Peet
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 23, 2018 at 8:46 pm

Hey "honest" landlord looking to end all rent control: Identify the apartment building or complex that applied for higher rents but got the run-around you have described.

1 person likes this
Posted by @Peet
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2018 at 9:56 am

It's going on right now, the applicant,(owner) first name is David and out of respect to that person I am not posting his last name. Several other people have came before the council and expressed the same issue. Go look it up and sit in during the hearing, it is a public hearing-court room.

Again, you are the on being dishonest here. But that is what Measure V is.

6 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2018 at 10:33 am

A 1906 earthquake in San Francisco would probably kill more people than in 1906. Rebuild.

2 people like this
Posted by Peet
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 24, 2018 at 12:04 pm

Under Measure V, rent increase petitions do not go to the "Council." The petitions to increase rents (beyond the Measure V adjustment) are not private. Identify any "honest" landlord that you claim filed any such petition by complex name or address so really honest persons can look it up. Saying you know of some landlord named "David" will not suffice.

3 people like this
Posted by Karma
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2018 at 3:27 pm


Apparently you are uninformed of what the process is and what another poster here has been saying.

1- The applicant is David Anvy. The first hearing took place on June 5 or 6th as I remember. The meeting was held at City Hall and the room next to the council chambers. He has, IMHO, a serious issue in regards to not having enough income to pay his mortgage, not that you would care about that as in Measure V it has language in it that states that the payment of interest on a loan is not allowed as a business expense and can not be used in calculating what a fair rate of return is.

2- No poster here wrote anything about bringing an application to petition for a rent increase to the city council. Your lack of reading ability and comprehension automatically makes you go into jacka$$ mode and attack people who only point out the facts, which you do not want the public to know about.

11 people like this
Posted by Karma Chameleon
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2018 at 3:57 pm

The property and landlord in question is the one that was sued for “triple damages” by the businessman on the timing of roll back refund. Of course that frivolous complaint was dismissed, but it remains a symbol of the Measure V supporters feelings of entitlement to take from others.

This poor guy has to deal with hostile, ungrateful tenants and the unwieldy bureaucracy created by measure V.

He was part of a group that put down 58% cash on a $4.95M 10 unit building. The building is old carrying much deferred maintenance, so he needs adequate cash flow to pay the $2.1M note, finance improvements and have a fair return. The fair return is not likely possible with Measure V. It is pretty darn un-American that someone who reasonably risked $2.9M of cash is punished so severely, it is a bucket of ice water poured over any hope of improving the City’s rental stock.

2 people like this
Posted by Peet
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 24, 2018 at 8:18 pm

I see online a 61-year-old sine man in Palo Alto named David Anvy. You say he is part owner of a 10-unit building in Mountain View. Let's look at this as your best example of what you say is wrong with Measure V. Is there an onsite manager? What is the total rent received on the 10 units? How much higher does David contend the rent should be? How much is the monthly mortgage?

4 people like this
Posted by Wayne
a resident of North Whisman
on Jun 25, 2018 at 3:10 pm

Did the landlords do anything to their apartments before rent control was in place no they raised the rent and didn't retrofit so now they want to raise the rent. Sounds like the new fuel tax.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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