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SMa.r.t. Column: Fix Those Balconies!

About six years ago a fifth-floor balcony in a Berkeley apartment building collapsed. A group of students standing on the balcony died and several others were injured. Investigations into the tragedy suggested that the balcony may not have been constructed or maintained properly. Problems with waterproofing eventually led to dry rot, and weakened the balcony’s structural supports.

In response, the State of California passed laws requiring inspections to prevent future collapses in existing buildings. One law, SB721, covers rental apartment buildings, and the other, SB326, condominiums.

What do the laws state?

The law requires owners of existing rental buildings with three or more multifamily dwelling units to inspect all exterior balconies (and other elements) by January 1, 2025, with new inspections every six years after that. This law covers all mixed-use buildings, large apartment apartment buildings, triplexes and fourplexes. New buildings must be inspected within six years of getting a Certificate of Occupancy, and every six years thereafter.

Condominium associations in existing buildings must have all inspections  done by January 1, 2025, with new inspections every nine years. New buildings must be inspected within six years of receiving a Certificate of Occupancy, and once every 9 years after that.

Penalties for Not Performing Inspections

One problem: for owners of rental buildings there are no penalties–in state law– for not inspecting balconies. Local governments have the option of enforcing the law and imposing penalties if they wish. But if a local government chooses not enforce this law or impose penalties, renters must rely entirely on the diligence of property owners to obtain those inspections and carry out repairs.  At the moment, Santa Monica does not impose penalties on building owners that refuse to perform inspections, and in any case, the deadlines have not yet arrived.

For condo associations, state law does not impose penalties if an inspection is not completed. But all associations must develop a reserve study (by state law) and will need to include an inspection report as part of the reserve study. The Davis-Stirling act includes penalties for not completing this study. In this case penalties are imposed by the state.

Penalties for Not Performing Repairs

Buildings that have been inspected and needing repairs must start the work within 180 days. If that is not done, state law requires inspectors to notify the city’s code enforcement agency. Building owners then get 30 days to complete the repairs, or receive a penalty of $100-$500 per day until the balconies are fixed. 

For condominium associations, there is no penalty–in state law–for not performing repairs. Owners must rely on their HOA boards to carry out these repairs.

What are the deadlines?

The earliest deadline is  January 1, 2025, for older, existing multifamily rental and condominium buildings. That is the date when inspections must be complete. 

The situation for new rental buildings is a bit different. For new rental buildings (where the application for a building permit was submitted after January 1, 2019),  the first inspection deadlines are likely to arrive somewhere around 2028. The reason: the inspection deadline is six years after getting a Certificate of Occupancy, which is awarded at the very end of the construction process. In Santa Monica larger multifamily buildings may take three to four years from the time the building permit application is submitted until the end of construction, when the Certificate of Occupancy is awarded. So building permits submitted in January, 2019, may result in a Certificate of Occupancy between 2022 and 2023, with a balcony inspection deadline six years later.

Does Santa Monica Impose Penalties for noncompliance?

There are no local penalties yet for landlords that refuse to complete inspections, presumably because the first inspection deadlines are still several years in the future. But the City should be alert for those inspections completed before the deadline that require repairs to rental buildings. The law says that repairs must be started within 180 days of the inspection report. The City will need to make sure that apartment building owners who complete their inspections early will also finish up the repairs in a timely manner, and impose penalties for those who do not complete the work. That will require some effort by our city’s code enforcement authorities. Incidentally, the law allows local enforcement agencies to recover the cost of enforcement.

Who Performs Inspections?

For rental buildings, inspections can be performed by a Certified Building Inspector (the City determines which qualifications are required). Inspections can also be performed by a licensed architect or a licensed structural or civil engineer. For a condominium building, inspections can only be performed by a licensed structural engineer or a licensed architect.

After the tragic balcony collapse in Berkeley and other similar events elsewhere, state laws now provide the legal framework for making sure that these kinds of events are not repeated. But it is really up to our city authorities to ensure that owners of rental apartment buildings complete the required inspections and repairs.  Our city should establish rules and penalties for those who refuse to comply, and not let deadlines lapse.  Members of Homeowners Associations should talk to their condominium association Boards about getting these inspections, and any possible repairs, done as soon as possible. For residents living in both rental apartment buildings and condominiums, getting these structures inspected and, if necessary fixed, can be a lifesaving matter.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commission

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc L. Verville M.B.A., CPA (inactive); Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

in Opinion
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