A Step Back From The URM Precipice

The train of injustice that is the city’s URM Placard Ordinance has paused, just a bit.

New City Commissioner Joann Hardesty has directed her Bureaus to pause enforcement of the ordinance. Her statement:

“No one is interested in putting our residents at risk, but we need to look at ways to better support businesses and non-profits in seismically upgrading their buildings. A placard is a band-aid for a much larger problem. Until we have better support in place, especially in the form of funding assistance for these projects, I want placarding enforcement on hold for businesses and non-profit organizations.”

The SE Examiner recently covered the URM issue in-depth. From the article:

“A potentially powerful alignment of diverse interests has coalesced to oppose City requirements that unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings post placards warning of possible collapse in the Big One.”

“The extraordinary mix of commercial interests with minorities, musicians, artists, tenant advocates, preservationists and the newly-formed Coalition to Prioritize, Protect and Preserve Affordable Housing, stood firm in what the latter termed “solidarity against a land grab gold rush that threatens Portland’s racial fabric and character”.

For a summary of how we got here, the MusicPortland group lays it out:

  • In 2016, 1600+ buildings (all in full compliance of current codes) were added to the city’s URM list based on PSU student drive-by assessments, many have already been partially or completely upgraded to maximum seismic levels but were added (and remain) on the list regardless
  • For two years, this list was made public and Developers used it to pressure building owners to sell while the policy committee reviewed the situation
  • The city received less than 12% response from building owners, and less than 1% of notified tenants.
  • The policy committee presented a policy that addressed seismic risks of URMS, all buildings in the liquefaction zones of downtown and the Pearl and unreinforced concrete buildings, but city staff (not City Council as previously stated) removed the latter two 48 hours prior to the hearing because they would present a political “hassle”. 
  • The Level 1 seismic upgrades proposed by the Policy committee are expensive, but attainable and provide 80% of the safety enhancement to URMs
  • City Council ignored key elements of the policy committee’s advice, specifically “Do Not Placard” because they stigmatize the buildings and dis-intent the safety upgrades. Seattle has never required placards or any mandate. Evicted tenants due to seismic upgrades are excluded from relocation protections.
  • City Council dismissed financial impact of placarding requirement to the owners and business tenants as insignificant
  • The law passed on October 10, despite vocal opposition
  • On December 14, the City Attorney codified the worst case financial impact by sending a contract that all building owners are required to sign that renders every URM mortgage as “distressed”
  • Failure to sign the contract will allow the city to take the building through enforcement leading to by eminent domain
  • The contract places an encumbrance on the title, with the pending cost of upgrades often exceeding the value of the building.
  • Banks have legal authority to recall any “distressed” loan at will from the moment that the contract is signed
  • The contract legally commits every building owner to a Level 4 safety upgrade that is 3 levels above that suggested by the policy committee to improve seismic safety, increases the cost 4x, requires vacating all tenants and cuts off access to financing to fund the required work.
  • The only option remaining to owners is to sell to buyers who can pay cash and who plan to demolish the building – Developers.
  • There has still been no notice given to a large majority of the owners of this “taking” of their properties.

One aspect of the city’s URM Ordinance that hasn’t received enough attention is how sloppy and arbitrary the “URM List” is. In the city’s own words:

“The Bureau of Development Services Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Building database is a list containing information on buildings located in the City of Portland which are believed to be of unreinforced masonry construction. The URM Database was originally compiled in the 1990’s and was recently updated. The update included verifying the database accuracy using tools such as Google maps”

“accuracy of the database cannot be guaranteed due to a number of factors. Some buildings may have more than one address or have an address different than what is shown in the database and not all permitted building records could be located. Some of the buildings may not be of URM construction. Some of the buildings may have been improved to better resist seismic loads.”

“The presence of a building in this database is not a predictor of its performance in a seismic event.”

“The City of Portland makes no representations, express or implied as to the accuracy of this database.  There are no assurances as to whether the information presented is correct or comprehensive.”

In fact, independent review of the city’s URM list shows it is full of errors. One neighborhood in NE Portland carefully reviewed its URM listed buildings, and found that half the listed buildings are not URMs, and half the actual URMs in the neighborhood are not on the list. Some major buildings that are definitely known to be have been seismically retrofitted are on the list, such as the Crystal Ballroom and the White Stage building. One URM apartment building just spent $1.1MM on a seismic retrofit and is still on the list. One building owner’s investigation found that buildings were placed on the list based on a “drive by” inspection, sometimes by student interns, with no-one actually setting foot in the building or looking at the structure. Wood frame buildings with brick veneer are on the list. Put bluntly, the city’s URM list is of such poor quality that the city won’t stand behind it, but once a building is on the list, there is no clear way to get off the list.

This isn’t how our city should work. Commissioner Hardesty’s willingness to re-examine the URM Ordinance is refreshing.

Posted in: URM