In response to the balcony collapse in 2015 that tragically killed seven students in Berkeley, the California state legislature enacted Senate Bill 721 in 2018. The bill, otherwise known as the Balcony Inspection Law, went into effect on January 1, 2019.
SB-721 mandates inspections of exterior elevated elements (E3s) such as balconies, decks, and stairways of apartment buildings with three units and above in California. The primary objective of the bill is to prevent injuries and fatalities that may occur due to structural failures of these E3s.
As the compliance dates for the soft story retrofit mandate are nearing their end, the next phase of safety inspections has arrived. Like the soft story retrofit work, this too could require a substantial capital outlay and may be equally disruptive to tenants.
Under this bill, apartment building owners in California must have their E3s inspected by a licensed professional engineer no later than January 1, 2025, with subsequent inspections every six years thereafter.
The E3s that require inspection under the Balcony Inspection Law must meet all the criteria set forth below:
– Balconies, decks, porches, stairways, walkways, and entry structures that extend beyond the exterior walls of the building and include walking surfaces designed for human occupancy or use.
– The walking surfaces are elevated more than six feet above ground level.
– The E3s rely in whole or in substantial part on wood or wood-based products for structural support or stability.
If the inspector determines there is an urgent safety risk, owners are required to mitigate the damage immediately. Examples include a loose deck rail that could break if a person were to lean against it or extensive dry rot that compromises the structural integrity or stability of a balcony.
For cases that require imminent action, the inspector must notify the owner within 15 days of the inspection and the owner must then inform the tenants of the affected unit and secure the area if needed to prevent access.
For cases that do not pose an immediate safety risk, owners will have 120 days from receipt of the inspection report to apply for a permit to perform the repair work, and an additional 120 days after approval of the permit to complete the necessary repairs.
The bill requires property owners to provide documentation of the inspection report to both the tenants and to local building departments, who may require proof of compliance as a condition for issuing future permits.
Failure to comply with SB-721 can lead to severe consequences — including fines, suspending permits, ordering the building to be vacated until repairs are completed, liability for injuries, a building safety lien, and even criminal charges.
While the Balcony Inspection Law sets forth minimum inspection and repair requirements at the state level, local jurisdictions may establish more stringent inspection requirements.
With the focus on completing the soft story retrofit, as well as the myriad tenant issues surrounding the COVID emergency, SB-721 has largely been on the back burner for most landlords. The January 1, 2025 deadline may seem a comfortable distance away. However, many owners are unlikely to meet the new requirements in time, despite their best intentions.
According to the American Apartment Owners Association, there are around half a million apartment facilities in California, while the number of qualified SB-721 building inspectors stands at just 200.
Given this ratio, there simply isn’t enough time between now and the deadline for everyone to complete inspections. Those who schedule their inspections now could avoid expensive complications later.
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