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Seismic retrofit rates highlight unfair efforts

Seismic retrofit rates highlight unfair efforts
Seismic retrofit rates highlight unfair efforts


Single-family homes in Los Angeles neighborhoods that are predominantly black, Hispanic, and low-income have fewer seismic retrofits than other parts of the city.

Written by Rebecca Owen, Science Writer (@beccapox)

Citation: Owen, R., 2024, Seismic Retrofit Rates Highlight Inequitable Efforts, Temblor,

Editor's Note: This story refers to “paralyzed walls,” a standard industry term. However, we will use “crawl space” unless we quote directly from the source.

In seismically active cities along the West Coast of the United States, many older homes may not survive a strong earthquake. Take, for example, homes built before 1980 with raised front porches and crawl spaces. If these homes are not properly retrofitted, they can slide from their foundations or collapse during severe shaking.

Aerial view of Los Angeles. Credit: Tuxyso, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The presence of another building feature — crawl spaces — can put the entire home at risk during strong earthquakes. “Failed walls are short timber walls located between the main floor framing and the foundation [the crawl space]“It provides vertical support and stability around the perimeter of the home,” says structural engineer BJ Cure of Cascadia Risk Solutions. “Your typical old house with access to the terrace usually has a crippled wall bridging the gap between the ground and the first floor.” If the house's footprint collapses, he says, “it could result in a complete economic loss of the house, rendering it unusable in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.”

While owners of at-risk properties may want to make safety upgrades to their homes, seismic retrofitting can be expensive. Two important retrofit tasks include installing the foundation into the frame of the house and shoring up the crawl space with additional plywood. Installation and setup costs can range between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on a number of factors.

Disclosing information about retrofits

A recently published study looks at the demographics of homeowners who have completed crawl space retrofits in Los Angeles. The study results showed that households with low rates of modernization are associated with disparities in race and ethnicity and lower income levels in neighborhoods across the city.

Performing these seismic retrofits “could actually mean the difference between your home being repairable and being damaged beyond repair,” says Henry Burton, study author and professor of structural engineering at UCLA. “So you can imagine how important this is, especially for low- to moderate-income families.”

The researchers examined records kept in 5,400 homes, spread across 114 neighborhoods in Los Angeles, that had their crawl spaces modified between 1999 and 2022. This data was obtained from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, as well as the Los Angeles County Open Data Portal. Besides the rate of retrofit, the researchers mapped sociodemographic information about this population from census data.

“I wanted to look at how retrofitting was distributed throughout Los Angeles and try to see if there were any disparities, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but in terms of income and education as well,” Burton says.

The team's findings revealed that neighborhoods with higher Black and Hispanic households had lower rates of modernization. For example, gentrification rates in neighborhoods with the highest representation of black residents were 33% lower than in all of Los Angeles. The city's lower-middle-income neighborhoods had lower-than-average rates of gentrification compared to the rest of the city. White, Asian, and higher-income families were overrepresented in neighborhoods where homes had higher rates of modernization, and black and Hispanic families were underrepresented. The two neighborhoods with the highest rates of gentrification — 22% and 44%, respectively — had higher-income residents and higher home values ​​than the rest of Los Angeles.

Two homes after the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Ferndale, California, in 2022. One home was not updated (left) and the other home was updated (right). Credit: California Earthquake Commission

Impact of a single program

For California homeowners, the Earthquake Brace and Bolt (EBB) program was introduced in 2013 by the California Earthquake Service and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. The EBB program provides funding for two necessary tasks: attaching the foundation to the frame of the house, and shoring up the crawl space beneath the house with additional plywood for support.

Before (left) and after (right) photos of the crawl space during the retrofit process. The foundation plate is used to securely connect the first floor to the foundation rather than directly connecting them together. Credit: California Earthquake Commission

The EBB program allocates $3,000 to homeowners to retrofit wood-frame homes with raised foundations built before 1980. Additionally, supplemental financing is available to low-income homeowners. To qualify for EBB financing, homes must also be located in specific at-risk zip codes in California. (In Oregon and Washington, where the potential for devastating earthquakes also looms, there is no similar program to help homeowners cover any of the costs of retrofitting their homes.)

Before (left) and after (right) photos of the crawl space during the retrofit process. Plywood is nailed into place to hold up the short walls in the crawl space. Credit: California Earthquake Commission

The researchers compared data before and after EBB was implemented to see if retrofit rates improved across Los Angeles for certain demographics. Their findings showed a roughly 37% increase in retrofits after 2013 in the 10 neighborhoods with the highest percentage of black households. After 2013, retrofit rates nearly doubled in low-income and Hispanic neighborhoods as well, indicating the positive impact of the EBB program. Before 2013, the retrofit rate for these neighborhoods was 75% lower than the rest of Los Angeles. After 2013, retrofit rates are 46% lower than in other parts of the city, but this is still an improvement from pre-budget levels.

“The exciting thing is that the data shows an increase [of retrofits] “In areas with a high representation of Hispanic and black homeowners,” says Janelle Maffei, chief mitigation officer for the California Seismological Service, who was not involved in the study.

Although initial EBB grants of $3,000 help offset the cost of the retrofit, the grants are not awarded based on financial need. The grants are for homeowners who are staying in their homes in at-risk areas throughout California on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We're definitely going to try to see what we can do to help people for whom $3,000 wasn't enough,” Maffei says. Households with incomes of less than $87,360 per year now have another opportunity to obtain additional financing to complete the retrofit. “In Southern California, where the study is taking place, an EBB grant plus a supplemental grant may cover the full cost of retrofitting for the vast majority of retrofit jobs.”

Retrofit for everyone

“The more the general public understands the problem and how to solve it [it]“More solutions become possible,” says Cure, who was not involved in the study.

“It's better for you as a homeowner not to be the only person in the community doing this retrofit,” Burton says. “I hope that people with that community mindset will not only retrofit, but also make people realize that this funding is available.”

Even with the EBB program helping to fortify homes ahead of devastating earthquakes, disparities remain across Los Angeles in mitigation and preparedness. EBB financing is available to homeowners who occupy their own properties. Tenants in high-risk areas must rely on their landlords to make necessary retrofits. In the aftermath of the earthquake, residents will still be severely affected by the loss of their rental homes.

In an effort to prevent EBB financing from being handed out to large investment firms or companies with large inventories of homes, the original financing requirements excluded homes occupied by renters. “This year, our goal is to include renter-occupied homes, and I think by limiting the number of homes a given owner can [retrofit]“We can,” Mafi says.

Burton explains that before 2013, much of the gentrification in Los Angeles neighborhoods could be linked to patterns of gentrification, an avenue that researchers can continue to explore. “It's not clear how this should be interpreted. Retrofits are a good thing, right? But if more retrofits lead to greater disparities, then we need to think about that carefully and also about the types of policies that could help mitigate those disparities when they start.” Societies in change.

Even as installations and retrofits continue to increase as more funding becomes available, it will be critical for policymakers to reach out to homeowners and residents in the most vulnerable neighborhoods to continue communicating mitigation efforts. The average gentrification rate in the 10 Los Angeles neighborhoods with the highest representation of Hispanic households is one-third lower than in the rest of the city. Immediately after an earthquake, these neighborhoods may be the hardest hit and take the longest to recover. When this happens, displaced residents may never return, changing the community forever.

“Our results show that households belonging to certain socio-demographic groups are less likely to mitigate their risks [because of economic barriers]“We need policies specifically designed to address this disproportionate impact,” says Sahar Derakhshan, one of the study’s authors and a geography professor at Cal Poly Pomona. “Otherwise, these groups will bear a greater burden when the earthquake occurs.”


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