Construction is the major theme of tonight’s Rent Control Board meeting, as the members discuss the City’s massive new seismic safety retrofit ordinance and tweak tenant protections.

The board will consider changes to an ordinance that allows rent control tenants to pay reduced rent while there is significant construction at their building that effects habitability or reduces services unless the construction is necessary and reasonable.

Under the current rules, tenants can start receiving a rent reduction from the day the Rent Control Board notifies the building owner that tenants may be eligible. However, sometimes those notices don’t go out until far into the construction process, limiting the amount of money a tenant may receive.

“Last year, we granted reduction to a building where a lot of work was done without permits, but because we weren’t aware of the construction at first, the tenants were only given reduction from the time we realized it was happening,” the Board’s executive director Tracy Condon said.

City staff is recommending the Board change the law so that reductions begin at the start of the construction.

To tenants currently trying to get their rent reduced, the process is tedious and frustrating. The tenants at 1238 and 1242 10th Street have been living with construction that includes demolition of the exterior walls of their building, changes to the roof, the elimination of amenities like washing machines and jack hammering for more than a year. Tenants finally had their first rent reduction hearing in February.

“It seems at every turn, the owner has gotten away with every infraction,” tenant Shruti, who asked the Daily Press not to publish her last name, said. “Sadly, it is we, the tenants, whose health is put at risk and suffer the most. This whole process has been emotionally, mentally and physically taxing.”

If Shruti and her neighbors succeed in getting their rent reduced, the reduction will only go back to August of last year.

The ordinance itself and case law surrounding the issue dictates that tenants are not eligible for rent reductions if the construction is necessary. Because of that caveat, tenants whose buildings require intense construction because of the City’s seismic safety ordinance will likely not be granted rent reductions during that time.

“If however, it’s done in an unreasonable way or takes an unreasonable about of time to complete, then rent reductions could potentially be granted,” Condon said.

Advocates for building owners worry the volume of construction as thousands of buildings come into compliance with the ordinance could create a recipe for exploitation. The City has published a list of thousands of buildings that may require retrofitting, many of them are so-called “soft story” apartment buildings where one or more units sit above a carport.

“These draconian decrease regulations will likely give birth to a new cottage industry that we can call ‘Decreases R Us,’” Building owner Wes Wellman said. “Activists will organize tenants on every retrofit to pursue rent decreases from an enabling and compliant rent control administration.”

While building officer Ron Takiguchi will brief the Board on the seismic safety ordinance tonight, they will not discuss the primary concern of building owners: pass through costs.

The seismic retrofit notices are going out in waves over the next year and a half. Owners of approximately 200 brick buildings will receive the first notices May 1 that they need to hire an engineer to inspect the resilience of their building in anticipation of a large earthquake. Those owners will have three months to file the evaluation with the City and then two years to finish any required retrofits.

Several buildings owners have written to the Board, asking for permission to pass through the cost of the retrofit to tenants.

“I did not build my building this way ie needing earthquake retrofit!” owner Dr. Adel Salawy wrote to the board in anticipation of the discussion, saying his building is a retirement investment. “I do not even live in the building, the tenants will be the primary (beneficiary) of this retrofit. It will protect them not me if we have an earthquake.”

Dr. Salawy owns a 16-unit building on 4th street that he purchased in the early 1980s.

Condon says the City is currently working on an analysis of construction and will likely discuss pass through costs this summer.

At tonight’s meeting, the City’s new Neighborhood Preservation Coordinator will also explain the Tenant Protection Program. The presentation will go over means and methods plans for proposed construction projects and relocation benefits, according to the agenda. The meeting is open to the public and begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall, 1685 Main St.

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