SF Apartment : June 2016


A Seismic Save the Date

by Tom Hui

With deadly earthquakes occurring recently in Japan, Ecuador and Tonga—all coinciding with the 110th anniversary of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire in April—we are reminded once again that we all play an important role in preparing for and being ready to respond to the next earthquake. 

Over the last three years, the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection has implemented and executed multiple seismic-safety-focused programs, including the Mandatory Soft-Story Program. Approved in 2013 by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee, the Mandatory Soft-Story Program is a step forward in having certain seismically unsafe buildings proactively evaluated for seismic safety and retrofitted to be strengthened for the next natural disaster.

This program applies specifically to wood-frame buildings of three or more stories or two stories over a basement or underfloor area that have any portions extending above grade, and containing five or more residential dwelling units where the permit to construct was applied for prior to January 1, 1978, and where the building has not yet been seismically strengthened.

While these types of buildings and their associated risks are found in every neighborhood in San Francisco, they are most commonly found in the Mission, Western Addition, Richmond, North Beach and the Marina.

Performing a seismic upgrade of a soft-story building reduces the risk of collapse during an earthquake by significant numbers. This seismic strengthening will therefore prevent more people and businesses from being displaced and disrupted in the immediate aftermath of the next major quake.

In 2013, over 6,000 residential properties were identified to fall under the Mandatory Soft-Story Program. As the first phase of complying with this program, all identified properties were required to turn in a screening form by September 2014. From this screening process, over 5,000 at-risk properties were identified. Owners are required to seismically retrofit these soft- story, or weak-story, buildings by 2020.

This past February, DBI sent a mailing to 3,000 properties under this program, where owners have yet to file or complete the required retrofit process. For property owners of five-story buildings with 15 units or more, found under Tier 2 of this Program, permit applications and plans are required to be submitted to DBI by September 15, 2016. Over 500 properties fall under this category. As of this writing, just over 30% of properties under this tier have complied with this requirement by submitting their permits and plans. However, for 70% of properties—more than 300 buildings—owners have yet to act.

There are two additional tiers, which will also require owners to turn in their permits and plans, but have until September 15, 2017, and September 15, 2018, respectively, to turn them in. It’s better for owners to turn in the paperwork ahead of the September 15 deadlines so they can be on track with complying with the program’s requirements and avoid code enforcement proceedings.

The four tiers in the program are as follows. Tier 1 is any building containing educational, assembly, or residential care facility uses. Tier 2 is any building containing 15 or more dwelling units. Tier 3 is any building not falling within another tier. Tier 4 is any building containing ground floor commercial uses or any building in a mapped liquefaction zone. For information about liquefaction, visit the city’s Earthquake Safety Implementation Program website at sfgov.org/esip.

Properties identified and found to have already been seismically strengthened to meet or exceed the standards of Section 1604.11 of the San Francisco Building Code in the past 15 years prior to the operative date of Chapter 34B of the SFBC or voluntary seismic strengthening under the provisions of Administrative Bulletin AB-094 are exempt from the program. If you have completed a retrofit under AB-094 and the Voluntary Seismic Retrofit Program and your property is still counted in the program, you will need to provide documentation with the screening form completed to receive your exemption.


To remain compliant, noticed 
property owners need to take 
the following four steps.
Step 1: Get prepared.
Step 1: Work with a licensed 
design professional to obtain plans and calculations prior to permit 
application submittal.

Before you start, make sure to hire/contact a licensed civil or structural engineer, or architect who specializes in seismic strengthening of buildings, to develop a retrofitting plan. Although the city is legally unable to recommend engineers and contractors, we recommend that you contact the San Francisco office of the American Institute of Architects (aiasf.org) and/or the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California (seaonc.org) to find qualified professionals.

Before you visit DBI, you’ll need to have two sets of plans prepared by a licensed architect, or civil or structural engineer. Drawings shall be a minimum size of 11 inches by 17 inches and drawn to scale at a minimum of 1/8 inch=1 foot. The first page of plans is required to be wet-signed and stamped by the design professional of record. Following pages may have a signature facsimile and professional seal with valid registration number. The submittal documents should also include one set of structural calculations with the cover pages wet-signed and stamped. 

Step 2: Visit DBI at 1660 Mission Street to file the permit application.

Once you have the plans completed, visit DBI’s first-floor Public Information Counter at 1660 Mission Street and complete permit application Form 3/8 and provide two sets of plans. The plans should include a site plan, architectural plans, structural plans and details. One copy of structural calculation is required. DBI staff will check your application for completeness and direct you to the required routing stations based on the proposed scope of work.

Step 3: Proceed with work accordingly once the permit is issued. 

Before the construction work has begun, you will need to contact the district inspector and ensure that any and all special inspections are completed and signed off by the special inspector prior to your final inspection. It is important to know that as construction work begins, you will need to keep track of required inspections. All inspections must be completed and signed off before the compliance tier deadline.

Step 4: Obtain Certificate of Final Completion and submit to DBI staff to complete compliance.

You will need to request the issuance of 
the Certificate of Final Completion once the job card is signed off by the building inspector after a final inspection. A copy of the CFC document will then need to be submitted to DBI in person or through email at softstory@sfgov.org. Failure to comply with the due dates appropriate to the building’s tier schedule will result in code enforcement proceedings and an earthquake warning placard posted on the noncompliant property. A chart of all tier due dates can be found at sfdbi.org/property-owners.

Because we know it is not a question of if, but when the next earthquake will hit the Bay Area, an investment in your property is prudent to ensure that when the next natural disaster hits, older residential buildings in San Francisco are more able to sustain the seismic incident. No property, new or existing, can be immune to a seismic event; but we can all do our part to seismically strengthen the buildings we own and reduce significantly the risk of collapse.

The cost to seismically retrofit a building will vary widely depending upon the level of the hazard and needed seismic upgrade work. It is estimated that retrofits will cost between $60,000 and $130,000, depending on the building size. The cost of permits is a percentage of construction costs per SFBC Section 110A. 

The city is currently offering a public financing option, developed in partnership with the City Administrator’s Office, Mayor’s Office, and AllianceNRG-Deutche Bank, for property owners who wish to finance their seismic retrofits. Please note that the financing option provided by the city is only one of many that property owners can avail themselves of in order to comply with the requirements.

The city’s financing option offers 100% financing of project costs up to 15% of property value with progress payments that can be used for upfront engineering and design. Competitive fixed rates are offered with repayment terms of up to 20 years that are amortized through the property’s tax bill. That assessment may stay with the property upon sale. Approval is based primarily upon property value and not the credit of the owner.

In addition to the seismic retrofit costs, energy efficiency, water conservation and renewable energy projects may be also be financed with this option. The property owner keeps any applicable federal/state rebates and/or tax credits.

A list of additional private lenders are also found on the ESIP website at sfgov.org/esip/seismic-retrofit-financing.


Since April 2015, properties undergoing seismic upgrades can now add dwelling units where there is sufficient space within the existing building envelope. This is an excellent opportunity for property owners planning to or already going through the MSSP or voluntarily seismically retrofitting their property to construct additional dwelling unit(s) in these buildings.

If you have underutilized spaces that you may want to turn into new additional dwelling units, you can take advantage of this new program. Costs associated with seismically retrofitting your property may be defrayed by the overall long-term income you may receive when partaking in this program. A separate building permit and other DBI and planning department requirements will apply. Visit sfdbi.org/unitaddition for more information.


The program requires that the seismic retrofit occur only in the ground floor, but property owners can seismically retrofit the entire building. If this happens and there are tenants in the building, tenancy and associated services may be impacted. All work within the scope of this ordinance, as certified per San Francisco Rent Board procedures governing “Seismic Work Required by Law,” will be subject to related passthrough regulation and allowances. This work may be passed along 100% to the tenant. However, if tenants are facing hardship, they may apply for the hardship appeal process for passthroughs. For further questions, please contact the rent board at 415-252-4602. 


Over the last year, we’ve developed an informative website for property owners, design professionals and contractors to use to obtain the latest information on the program, which can be found at sfdbi.org/softstory. 

Every Wednesday, DBI provides an updated listing of buildings that have taken the needed steps to comply with the program requirements by street address and by block and lot number. An interactive map has also been developed, breaking down the different tiers, for access and retrieval on the noticed properties. For the latest list, you can visit sfdbi.org/soft-story-properties-list.

We have a dedicated staff of four that works on ensuring compliance with the program. You can visit Window 8 on the first floor of DBI’s offices at 1660 Mission St. You can also call 415-558-6699 or email softstory@sfgov.org. Sign up to receive email program notifications at sfdbi.org/softstoryemail.

In the coming months, and for the next three years, DBI will continue to conduct outreach on this program to ensure compliance from the noticed properties. We welcome your assistance in getting the word out about this program to your network and peers on the important role they have in ensuring our existing housing stock is retrofitted and, thus, safer for the next earthquake.

DBI Director Tom Hui, S.E., C.B.O., is a registered civil and structural engineer with numerous technical certifications. He is an active member of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California and the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Department of Building Inspection oversees the effective, efficient, fair and safe enforcement of the City and County of San Francisco’s building, housing, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, and disability access codes for San Francisco’s more than 200,000 buildings. Please visit www.sfdbi.org for more information.