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How WeHo Residents Swung The City Council On Seismic Retrofitting

The Sunset Strip runs along a fault line that could devastate hundreds of residential buildings in West Hollywood if they aren't brought up to code. (Photo by MikeJiroch/Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons)
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Ninety percent of housing in West Hollywood was built before 1983 when earthquake codes were a lot looser, which means if the "Big One" hit tomorrow, it'd be bad news for WeHo.

That's why the city council passed an ordinance last year requiring certain "soft story" buildings to be brought up to earthquake code. That involves extensive evaluations and technological retrofits. About 800 buildings, or more than 6,500 mostly rent-controlled apartment and condo units are affected. And each unit would cost about $12,500 to update.

Landlords cried foul, saying that's a lot of dollars. So they suggested splitting the costs with their tenants 50/50. They argued that most of them don't own more than one building, and the financial help would stop them from having to sell to developers who would evict tenants and create luxury apartments in their place.

But at Monday night's city council meeting, the landlords didn't show. And their tenants did.

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Brian Hamilton has lived in his West Hollywood apartment since 1990. He said the only people that benefit from a better building are the people that own it.

"We're going to be expected to pay for these retrofits which logically increases the value of the real estate. So the building owner is going to be left with a much more valuable property but we paid for it. But we don't own it," he said.

"We're paying for the upgrade of somebody else's property that's going to net them millions of dollars more forever. We get nothing."

Another resident, Steve Martin, said it just isn't fair.

"We're talking about a multi-million dollar transfer of wealth from tenants to landlords. It's the biggest transfer of wealth since the Trump tax cut."

After a dozen renters made their case, Mayor Pro Tempore John D'Amico was the first to speak.

Many had expected the council would vote to support landlords.

But D'Amico expressed surprise that there weren't more landlords who wanted to speak.

"I notice there's not really any landlords in the city speaking one way or another. But if this was really taxing their finances I think they'd be sitting in the front rows and they'd be saying...I can't afford this cost."

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The renters' arguments -- and the absence of landlords -- seemed to sway the city council members. In the end, all of them voted against the recommendation.

Mayor John J. Duran said he was surprised by the unanimous vote. He thought the council would vote to impose the surcharge on tenants. He even planned to vote for it himself.

"I was looking for a way to get this covered and I thought cost sharing was a way to treat it like an insurance payment, so you just make sure you don't get caught short-handed in the event of a major quake," he said. "But I think the discussion with my colleagues and listening to the public convinced me that we had to place the primary burden on the property owners."

With the tenant surcharge rejected by the council, landlords who want financial help from their tenants would have to get them to pay for it the old-fashioned way: a rent increase application.

That's the set of paperwork property owners can fill out if their rent income is less than the costs to maintain the building.

The downside for tenants is that if the application were to be approved, it would be a permanent rent increase instead of a temporary surcharge.

But renters like Duran, who live in seismically unsafe buildings, said chances are slim those applications could be approved in the current housing market.

"The reality is real estate values have doubled, tripled, quadrupled. And these have become individual gold mines," Duran said. "So I think they'd be hard-pressed to say 'I'm suffering under the burden of rent control.' It's just not happening."

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong last name for West Hollywood's John D'Amico. LAist regrets the error.

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