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The building at 765 MacArthur Boulevard, a soft-story structure, is classified as an incomplete evaluation.

New interactive map identifies homes in need of seismic retrofitting

on September 22, 2014

Oakland residents now have an interactive way to see whether certain apartment buildings are potentially “soft-story structures,” meaning those at greater risk of collapsing during an earthquake.

Say you live in the Lake Merritt area, where many of these potential soft-story buildings are located. If you search your address on the Oakland Soft Story Map, you can see whether your landlord has completed an evaluation, if a secondary evaluation is required, or if your building is exempt. If your address is not on the map, your landlord was not notified to complete an evaluation.

Dave Guarino, a 2013 Code for America fellowship alumnus who lives in Oakland’s East Lake neighborhood, launched the website last month through Open Oakland, an all-volunteer “civic innovation nonprofit” that combines “hackers” with city employees to create helpful websites and apps.

A soft-story structure, according to the City of Oakland Building Services Division, is a building that was built prior to 1991, has not been retrofitted, has more than five units, has two or more stories and has a parking structure on the ground level.

It is difficult to determine whether a building is a soft-story structure without a thorough evaluation by a structural engineer, which is why the word “potential” is often used when speaking about soft-story structures.

Guarino said his research of soft-story structures was inspired after he suspected his building, which he has lived in for a year and a half, is one of these structures. He came across a map and report produced by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which used data gathered by the City of Oakland during its Soft-Story Seismic Screening program conducted from 2009 to 2011. The program notified property owners of these potentially unstable buildings and required them to complete a screening of the ground level. But the ABAG map was only a PDF, making it impossible to determine the exact address of a certain dot.

Guarino studied the map, he recalled, looking for his own address. “Oh, hey, I want to know if I’m one of those dots,” he said.

And, in fact, he was. But he did not feel compelled to move out. “If I were to move out now,” he said, “I would probably be living 20 blocks south of Lake Merritt.” Instead he looked into earthquake insurance and creating an earthquake safety kit.

Guarino began working on the Oakland Soft Story Map in February, after he received the complete set of data from ABAG as an Excel document. After the predawn Napa earthquake on August 24, Guarino’s colleague, Michal Migurski, asked Guarino about his earthquake safety project—and together they “sprinted” one weekend to finish it, Guarino said.

To transform the spreadsheet data to an interactive map was not difficult, Guarino said. The information he received from ABAG was tied to a parcel number, which can look like “22-309-13,” for example. This refers to a certain plot of land, which has an exact address. Guarino then “geocoded” the addresses, which converts them to latitude and longitude coordinates, and plotted them on the map.

He wanted to use his coding skills to give Oakland residents, who like him might want a way to know if their apartment building is a potential soft-story structure, an easy way to find out. But he doesn’t want his project to scare people. Rather, he hopes it will prompt them to consider other precautionary measures, such as insurance purchases.

Guarino said that even though the first floor of a soft-story structure is more likely to collapse during a major earthquake, the top floors are likely to remain relatively safe.

“What’s more significant is that soft-story buildings represent a huge portion of the affordable housing,” Guarino said. This is a part of the housing market, he said, that if demolished would be rebuilt at market rate, displacing many Oakland residents, especially those who are low-income.

Rick Phillips, a licensed contractor and architect who sits on the board of directors for the East Bay Rental Housing Association, agrees that the bigger post-earthquake issue, apart from human injury and death, is that of buildings becoming uninhabitable. Phillips, who lives in Oakland and manages four properties in the city, said the city’s screening program was a “good start,” but not sufficient, given that it could easily miss seismically unsound buildings.

For example, Phillips manages a 47-unit, three-story apartment building. It does not meet the city’s definition of a soft-story building, he said, and he was not notified that he must complete a screening. But his property really is a soft-story building, Phillips said, and he chose on his own to retrofit it before the screening program began in 2009.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I had the opportunity to do some seismic retrofit to protect the structure and the residents and didn’t do it and somebody were hurt, or, God forbid, killed,” Phillips said.

Though the deadline for notified property owners to complete a ground-level evaluation was July 29, 2011, there are still incomplete evaluations as of early 2013, according to Guarino’s map. Deborah Sandercock, Building Official for the City of Oakland, said the city will be re-notifying unresponsive property owners.

Sandercock, who became the Building Official and Deputy Director for the Department of Planning and Building after the screening program was conducted, said the city and ABAG have been meeting on a regular basis to restart the screening process after it stalled due to staff cuts.

“The goal now is to move to doing full structural evaluations,” said Danielle Hutchings Mieler, ABAG’s earthquake and hazards program coordinator.

A licensed engineer or architect, building inspector, home inspector or contractor must conduct a Level 1 screening, as the ground-floor evaluations are called. The screener must draw a to-scale floor print of the ground floor. They must also provide information about building materials used on walls, floors and ceilings, information about wall length and width and information about windows and doors within walls. Photos are required.

Phillips said there are many more buildings in Oakland that are not seismically safe. But soft-story buildings are the ones that are “glaringly deficient and frighteningly dangerous” to the point that politicians have taken notice, he said. Sandercock said Mayor Jean Quan wants to pass a mandatory retrofit ordinance by the end of the year.

But knowing the potential danger of these buildings does not seem to drive many Oakland residents from their homes. Guarino’s desire to hold on to his apartment and its location appears to be shared by others living in Oakland’s competitive rental market.

Christina Flores, who lives in a potential soft-story building on Lakeshore Avenue, said she searched for three months to find her apartment, “constantly refreshing Craigslist.”

“Whatever I got, I got,” Flores said. “Ideally, I wouldn’t live here.”

But she enjoys the location and price, she said. Howard Tran feels the same about his rent deal. Tran lives in a top-floor apartment of a multi-story building on Boden Way in the Lake Merritt neighborhood. The building he lives in is classified as an incomplete evaluation, according to the data used by Guarino—meaning the property owner was non-responsive, notifications were returned to sender, owners were granted an extension or the Level 1 screening is in review. But Tran said he is not concerned.

“The level of frequency of earthquakes is too low for people to change their lives,” Tran said.

Data like this may not drive a lot of people to move out, Guarino said. But it may help them make decisions about insurance purchases or safety precautions. Since the launch of the website, there have been approximately 2,000 new and returning visitors. One user even supplied Guarino with the JavaScript code to improve the page’s scrolling behavior.

“I’m excited to see what the city does with this issue,” Guarino said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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