The Redwood City Council approved a loan forgiveness program for property owners required to install fire sprinklers in their older buildings in exchange for an agreement to slow rent increases.
The council previously adopted an ordinance requiring older residential buildings with four or more units to install automatic sprinkler systems following two massive fires that gutted large buildings in the past two years.
The resolution the council unanimously passed Monday night — the Fire Safety First Program — provides an incentive for owners to retrofit the at-risk residential buildings during a five-year voluntary compliance period in exchange for slower rent increases “presently challenging our community,” according to a staff report by Fire Chief Jim Skinner and Interim City Manager Aaron Aknin.
The measures have two goals, Mayor Jeff Gee said Tuesday.
“First it will make our buildings safer and then it will help people stay in their homes,” Gee said.
All properties with four or more units built before July 1, 1989, must install sprinklers within five years. Those who do so voluntarily will be able to secure a low-income loan from the city which may be forgiven if property owners agree not to raise rents more than 5 percent a year for at least five years.
Gee said that many property owners find that their insurance does not cover the costs of rebuilding to newer codes that did not exist when the building was first constructed.
Owners can lose quite a bit of money if they are not able to rebuild quickly following a fire, he said.
“Hopefully they will take the offer,” Gee said about property owners accepting the loans.
Funding will be limited to $1.5 million in the first year to encourage early participation, according to the report.
Two fires, one that went to six alarms, at complexes on Woodside Road since 2013 led to the loss of 147 residential units, many of which were occupied by low-wage workers and others receiving housing assistance.
The fires left one dead and hundreds of residents scrambling to find housing in a market that has seen rents climb 50 percent in the past four years. Neither of the buildings were equipped with sprinklers.
“Fire sprinklers are focused on saving lives. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We were lucky only one life was lost,” Gee said about the deadly fire.
In July 2013, the owners of the 72-unit Hallmark House Apartments on Woodside Road were accused by former tenants of negligence for having inadequate sprinklers after the complex was nearly completely destroyed by a six-alarm fire.
The state requires that every home be equipped with smoke alarms but leaves it up to cities whether to require sprinklers, according to Skinner’s report.
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