The US Resiliency Council’s mission is to improve community resilience in part through advocacy for policies that make our buildings resilient to natural disasters. We are proud to be the organizational sponsor of California Assembly Bill AB 1721 – California Emergency Services Act, which among other things would appropriate $2 billion over five years in grant funding toward the seismic retrofit of soft story apartment buildings. AB 1721 fits perfectly with our guiding principle: Engineering in the service of Equity, the Environment and our Economy.
California has an estimated 100,000 soft story apartment buildings, which are prone to collapse in earthquakes. Next to unreinforced masonry buildings, they may be the most dangerous types of structures in California. Soft story collapses were responsible for dozens of deaths in the Northridge Earthquake. These buildings may house more than two million people, and are often located in small, disadvantaged communities that do not have resources to mitigate their risks. Many Californians — seniors and low-income working families — live each day with greater risk of death and injuries, housing dislocation, social injustice, economic damage, and environmental hazards due to earthquake risks.
Vulnerable populations living in soft-story buildings also have the least ability to recover when disasters destroy housing. The Los Angeles Times has written about earthquake drills in the State of Arizona planning how to accommodate 200,000 to 400,000 “quake refugees” from a large earthquake in Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Imagine how much worse our homeless crisis would be if hundreds and thousands of Californians were suddenly unhoused.
Many “mom and pop” owners of smaller multifamily buildings need financial assistance for earthquake retrofits to safeguard their buildings and tenants. Incentives can encourage building owners to move forward with necessary safety improvements. The effort to make California’s existing affordable multifamily housing more resilient can be stimulated by a grant program for property owners who invest in seismic retrofits and mitigate earthquake hazards facing their older, affordable multifamily buildings.
AB 1721 would allocate $400 million annually for five years to help eligible apartment owners retrofit soft story building. Studies show protecting existing affordable housing costs between $5,000 to $10,000 per unit. In stark contrast, producing new affordable housing in California costs between $575,000 to well over $800,000 per unit. In a matching grant program, $2 billion to $4 billion could ultimately be invested to retrofit soft-story buildings, and more than 400,000 units could be made safer. That means this program can protect 1,000,000 or more Californians.
AB 1721 goes to the heart of equity as so many of these buildings house our most vulnerable populations: seniors, lower income families, those with disabilities. I can think of no other way seismic mitigation funds could be better targeted toward building equity than through the retrofit of vulnerable housing.
AB1721 also has a direct impact on our climate. The greenest building is the one already built. Preserving these structures means less debris in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals into our air, water and soil. And it means less carbon put into the atmosphere replacing destroyed buildings with new ones.
And, AB 1721 would create good paying engineering, architecture and construction jobs throughout California. Investing in retrofits of soft-story apartment buildings can immediately begin to employ thousands of workers. Estimates are that for every $1,000,000 in construction spending seven to nine jobs are created. A few cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco led the way on addressing soft-story risk by adopting retrofit ordinances that created an industry of engineers, architects and contractors with the experience and capacity to do this type of work.
California’s investment to assist and incentivize soft-story retrofit would provide a long-term solution to a stubborn problem that threatens a large portion of the California’s affordable housing supply, puts large numbers of Californians at risk of death and injury, and impairs social equity. This investment would also serve to reduce disaster losses that can far exceed retrofit costs. This proposal enhances the resilience of cities and counties that rely on the tax base from these properties and the workforce they house to fund important public services.
A growing list of stakeholders from business, housing, environmental and community organizations have joined to support the USRC sponsored bill. These include unlikely alliances between apartment owners associations, fair housing advocates, realtors, building officials, chambers of commerce, environmental organizations, and the A/E/C community. At the center is the US Resiliency Council, with its credibility and ability to bring these groups together in common purpose.
The US Resiliency Council is proud to be leading this unprecedented effort to bring engineering science to the benefit of our communities, environment and economy.
A partial list of AB1721 supporters