WHITTIER — The committee charged with setting guidelines for distributing $313,000 in donations to help earthquake victims will recommend that the fund benefit only business owners who operate out of rented buildings--and it may be months before merchants see any of the money.
"There's practically nothing in the federal or state programs for these business operators--not the property owner, but the businessman himself," said committee chairman Keith Abbott.
He added that renters and homeowners "are pretty well taken care of by the combination of either or both the federal and state programs."
However, those findings were challenged by officials knowledgeable about loan and housing programs.
Robert Belloni, area director for the Small Business Administration disaster relief program, said business owners are eligible for $500,000 in loans regardless of whether they are renters or property owners.
And Brigitta Wamsher, program coordinator for the El Monte office of the Fair Housing Council of San Gabriel Valley, said many people need relocation help in moving from earthquake-damaged rental units.
"I wish (Abbott) could come here and answer my phones for a few days and find out about the needs that people have," said Wamsher, whose office deals with the concerns of low- and moderate-income people.
The Whittier City Council three weeks ago appointed Abbott and four other people to a committee to develop guidelines for disbursing the Whittier Earthquake Disaster Relief Fund. Contributions to the fund have included $100,000 each from the cities of Whittier and Santa Fe Springs, and $50,000 from the city of Freiberg, West Germany.
The committee will report Tuesday night to the City Council, which is expected to take the matter under advisement for a week before voting on the guidelines, Abbott said. Other committee members are Steve Flanders of the Whittier Uptown Assn., Phil Mautino of the Whittier Area Chamber of Commerce, Linda Creed representing City Hall and community representative Ellen Salter.
Under the committee's plan, business owners would be eligible for a maximum grant of $5,000 for any one or a combination of these purposes:
Up to three month's rent in a non-earthquake-damaged building, providing the merchant has a one-year lease in Whittier.
Up to $500 a month to cover rent increases if earthquake damage forced a merchant to relocate to another building.
Reimbursement for business fixtures, including such items as display racks or signs.
Up to $1,000 to cover loss of income or business interruption.
The plan calls for city staff to administer the program based on the committee's guidelines, said Abbott, who retired in 1980 after working 24 years at City Hall, including 12 as city manager.
By the time the council approves guidelines and grant applications are processed, it could be 90 days before the money starts to be disbursed, Abbott said. He estimated about 50 Whittier merchants might be eligible for the grants.
"I think we've moved along about as rapidly as we could, partly because we still were trying to get clarification of what the state did" during the legislative special session last month, he said. "We deliberately didn't want to go with such haste that we might be duplicating everything else."
The state assistance package, which includes help for merchants, homeowners and nonprofit institutions, has yet to be administered. But Belloni said the SBA has been in Whittier since October with information about loans for business owners and homeowners.
"The only difference between a renter or a leaser and a (business) owner is the fact that we will loan money to repair the structure only to the owner of the structure," Belloni said.
The loan could be used to pay for inventory losses, furniture, fixtures and possibly economic injury, he said.
Wamsher said the number of complaints from renters has increased in the last few weeks as landlords are failing to make timely repairs to earthquake-damaged apartments. Some landlords have raised rents to cut their repair costs, she said.
"Tenants can come up with $1,500 to move or pay the increase," Wamsher said. "They can't afford to move so they end up paying the increase. . . . I'm still getting about 30 calls a week on this."
The Rio Hondo chapter of the American Red Cross is still paying rent and deposits for a few homeless Whittier area residents, said Gary Hammond, executive director of the chapter.
"We've still got people coming in on a daily basis . . . but it's trickled down quite a bit," Hammond said. "The Red Cross is the court of last resort" for those unable to obtain help from other programs.
Asked if the disaster relief fund should benefit people other than merchants, Hammond said: "We don't take a stand on that. Naturally, we'd like to see as much assistance available to individuals and families as possible."