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Northridge Tragedy Puts Landlord Into Limelight : Earthquake: Rich but private Shashikant Jogani owns the building in which 16 died. He seems a paradox.

February 14, 1994|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — In the 25 years since he immigrated from India, Shashikant Jogani quietly built a real estate empire, borrowing to buy apartment buildings no one else wanted, fixing them up, then leveraging them to buy more.

Jogani became a rich man, and one of Los Angeles' largest residential landlords.

But 30 seconds of shaking on Jan. 17 brought one of Jogani's jewels--the three-story, 164-unit Northridge Meadows apartment building--groaning to the ground as the first floor collapsed, killing 16 tenants in their beds. The scene of the highest concentration of quake fatalities, the Reseda Boulevard complex came to symbolize the temblor's deadly force.

The tragedy has thrust Jogani, a savvy businessman with a passion for privacy, into the limelight. The picture that emerges from interviews with associates, clients, and from public records, is one of paradox.

He is respected as a symbol of American entrepreneurial success, but acknowledges serious financial difficulties.

The quake has forced the evacuation of hundreds of the apartments he controls, amounting to 15% of his holdings. Four years ago, his wealth was estimated at $375 million; last week, Jogani issued a statement to The Times asserting that aside from the estimated $9-million loss at Northridge Meadows, the continuing recession has meant that "equities in my other properties have vanished."

Jogani is considered a role model in the Southland's closely knit, 3,000-member community of Jains, an Indian religious sect that teaches asceticism, nonviolence, and vegetarianism. Yet at least one tenant, a creditor, and the city of Los Angeles have filed lawsuits against Jogani, asking the courts to force him to better maintain his residential properties.

Although he has earned a reputation as a shrewd and skillful negotiator, Jogani will never distinguish himself as a great communicator.

After the quake, survivors attacked their landlord as distant and aloof from their misery.

But an aide insisted that Jogani donned a hard hat and personally helped tenants salvage belongings, and offered generous terms at his other apartment complexes for those left homeless.

"No matter how great my loss," Jogani said in a prepared statement, "it does not compare to the loss of those who died in the earthquake. My deepest sympathies go to their families and friends."

Jogani learned about the collapse of Northridge Meadows while listening to his battery-operated radio after being jolted awake in his Glendale home.

Like most people, he was without electricity or telephones. He said he didn't realize "the magnitude of the tragedy" until later on Jan. 17.

The news that some of his tenants had died in the rubble pitched him into "shock and grief," according to the Jogani statement. He added that his shock was followed by feelings of pain and sorrow for the families of the dead. Then came a sense of helplessness, he said.

The father of two small children, Jogani insisted that he is not an uncaring landlord and real estate mogul, as some tenants have portrayed him.

"I was also concerned about all of the residents whose lives had been turned upside down and were now without a place to live," he said. He offered tenants discounted lodging at another apartment building in Van Nuys: Only five families accepted. He said he promptly returned security deposits and refunded pro-rated rents. He hired engineers to make sure that it was safe to re-enter Northridge Meadows.

Those who know him say Jogani, 47, never has been comfortable in the spotlight: In fact, drawing attention to oneself goes against the teachings of Jainism. The sect's name is derived from the words for conquering the body, or material self.

"Indian culture encourages silent good deeds," said Gordhan Patel, vice president of the Federation of Indo-American Assns. and a longtime Jogani friend. "That is the way the people are raised in the homes, society and religious institutions."

Although he still drives a brown 1987 Cadillac, he is the Jains' most obvious example of an American success story.

"He has been a pioneer in the Indian community," said Dr. Krishna Reddy, the federation's president. "He's been very successful, a good role model. He provides jobs and helps people in the community financially. Others look up to him quite obviously."

Born near Bombay, Jogani came to California in 1969 to study chemical engineering at USC. As a young man, Jogani and other Jains lived on Berendo Street in Los Angeles.

Now he owns a 38-unit apartment building worth $1.5 million on that street.

For a while after graduating from USC, Jogani sold beads and worked as a hotel bellhop, then started a jewelry business, called Gemlust. He comes from an old family, which with other Jain families, has been heavily involved in the uncut-diamond trade for a century. He still runs several jewelry companies from his Hill Street offices, in the heart of the Los Angeles jewelry district.

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