Berkeley sends warning letters to 325+ property owners for unsafe balconies

Three years following a deadly balcony collapse in Berkeley, 90 percent of decks, stairs and balconies in the city have passed inspection following law changes, however hundreds are still considered unsafe or require repairs.

City records show there are 3,100 decks and balconies that must keep up with new materials and inspection laws. City codes were changed after six students were killed and seven others were hurt when a balcony collapsed on an apartment building in June 2015. Many of the students were from Ireland visiting and working as part of a summer visa program.

While time has passed, the memories haven’t especially for the latest round of Irish exchange students working and living in Berkeley this summer.

“It was a shock really to all of us in Ireland,” Killian McDonnell said. “I would be very weary of being on the deck and two stories high when you’re looking down over it you kind of feel unsafe.”

Several of the students expressed fear or nervousness, especially when some of them ventured on a fraternity house’s balcony during a party just this week. In fact, of few of them said they didn’t even want to go out on it.

“I just saw it and it kind of got me a bit nervous and I thought, I better not,” Sarah McArdle said. 

2 Investigates reviewed records of balcony repairs and those that are failing inspection. More than 325 property owners were sent warning letters by the city of Berkeley for not being in compliance with the stricter laws.

In one case, several balconies were being repaired at another Berkeley building. Construction supervisor Joe Mongey said water, lack of ventilation, termites or failing construction materials could cause a catastrophe. In the 2015 collapse, investigators determined dry rot was to blame.

“Unless you really open it up and take a look at it, there’s no real way to see,” he said. “We would never know how this balcony was fastened onto the side of this building.”

Mongey said the way the balconies were built on the property he was repairing were not in danger of falling down, however, making structural fixes and replacing or reinforcing weak points will make the balconies ‘bulletproof.’

“If you’re having deterioration in the paint, you’re going to start having deterioration in everything else,” Mongey said. “It’s really the homeowner or the building manger needs to oversee this. They’re the ones who are hands on.”

Hundreds of decks have undergone similar repairs since the tragedy. Changes to Berkeley’s laws require more waterproofing materials, increasing ventilation and mandating inspections every five years. The spokesperson for the city said he believes Berkeley is much safer today.

“The idea that these buildings would be built and they’d last forever until eternity, that just isn’t true,” Matthai Chakko said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to find problems. Problems are going to emerge. What we should do is address those problems and fix them.”

2 Investigates found several questionable structures on the list of non-compliant properties. One set of stairs had splitting wooden beams and handrails, another property had nails pulling away from the crossbeams underneath the floor, and a third deck had rust and corrosion causing holes resulting in an unsafe railing.

City records show there are 3,100 balconies and decks that must undergo inspection. Recently, 65 citations were issued for property owners who have continually ignored or failed to take corrective action. Each citation consists of a $500 fine. Despite the citations, nearly 2,800 decks are cleared for the next five years, when an inspection will be required at the property owner’s expense.

“Until the city required them to do it, there were property owners who hadn’t inspected their balconies, their staircases and other structures just because it wasn’t required,” Chakko said. “You’re talking about lives that are changed forever as a result of one accident. We don’t want anything like that or anything remotely like it to ever happen again.”

There is a state bill before the General Assembly requiring inspections of balconies, stairs and decks every six years statewide. However, victims’ families argue that’s inadequate and doesn’t prevent potential dry rot, fungus or other structural issues.

Settlements have been reached with all of the victims’ families but there are still ongoing efforts to hold the builders and all contractors accountable.