San Francisco turns to public shaming to promote quake safety

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco is trying shaming to make its buildings safer for shaking.

The city plans this week to slap large signs on hundreds of apartment buildings to publicly shame their owners into complying with an earthquake-safety ordinance passed last year, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

The signs are printed in English, Spanish and Chinese with red lettering and a drawing of a destroyed building. They read “Earthquake warning!” in all-caps, followed by, “This building is in violation of the requirements of the San Francisco building code regarding earthquake safety.”

The new law requires that wood-frame apartment buildings and hotels be evaluated for seismic safety. About 6,000 building owners had until Monday to fill out retrofit-screening forms to determine whether they’ll need further study or possible retrofitting. Nearly 90 percent responded, but some 650 have not. Those owners will be subjected to the fines and the shaming signs.

Patrick Otellini, the city’s director of earthquake safety, said other tactics too often proved tepid and ineffective.

“We wanted something that caught people’s attention, which I think this very well does,” Otellini said. “We saw that other programs had been wildly unsuccessful. We wanted a poster that drives change and lets people know what’s going on.”

But Huy Le, who owns a salon in the city’s Castro District, said the signs would cause unnecessary fear.

“You’re putting people in panic mode. That would be a horrible thing to put in a window. All you see is the words ‘earthquake warning,’ ” she said. “It’s almost as good as saying, ‘Don’t come into this building because it’s going to collapse.’ “

Los Angeles is considering a similar move, with Mayor Eric Garcetti proposing a letter-grading system to alert the public about buildings’ seismic safety that would be the nation’s first.

The San Francisco ordinance was designed to find wooden apartments with weak first stories, where limited structural supports can mean upper floors caving in on lower ones during a big earthquake.

That happened in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when a couple and a baby died when an apartment building collapsed in the city’s Marina District.

“I want to be safe,” said Katie Stephens, who lives in a Marina District apartment. “That’s part of the responsibility of being a landlord in San Francisco. It may cost a lot, but what’s most important is that his tenants are safe.”

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