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Clinton Asks Congress for 'Ghost Town' Aid : Quake: President requests $225 million mainly for the vacant, crime-infested enclaves of damaged housing.

August 03, 1994|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to a shortage of money for restoring quake-damaged housing, President Clinton asked Congress on Tuesday to free up $225 million for the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica to issue as repair loans, particularly to those vacant, crime-infested enclaves known as "ghost towns."

The funding, leftover aid from highway and school repair programs, would provide zero-interest loans to hundreds of owners of wrecked apartment buildings and condominiums unable to get loans through banks or other federal aid programs.

Los Angeles housing officials praised the announcement, saying it will nearly close a shortfall in the money needed to repair the more than 50,000 apartments, condos and single-family houses severely damaged Jan. 17.

Speaking to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Santa Monica Mayor Judy Abdo by telephone from Washington, Clinton called the money a "down payment on our partnership with the cities to solve this 'ghost town' problem."

"This goes beyond a typical federal disaster response and it's possible because we have been able to reallocate some other disaster funds," he told the mayors, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), who were also on the line from Washington.

If the funding is approved by Congress, as expected, Los Angeles housing officials will get $200 million of the total, while Santa Monica--which lost 5% of its housing stock in the magnitude 6.8 quake--will receive the $25-million balance. Both cities will reserve the money mostly for multifamily buildings.

The funds are the latest of $11.9 billion in federal relief set aside by the Clinton Administration and Congress for quake victims in Southern California.

The President took advantage of the telephone conference call--and the media attention it had attracted--to mention a glowing report on the federal response to the disaster.

"At every opportunity, federal agencies responded with speed, flexibility and creativity to meet the needs of earthquake victims," according to the report, drafted by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Riordan said he requested the housing loans from Clinton last week after learning that an estimated $400-million surplus in federal funds set aside for repairing quake damage to freeways and schools was available for other uses.

The mayor said the money is to be funneled to multiunit housing repair loans because that is where city housing officials have identified a large gap between need and funds.

"This will give us the flexibility to use the money where it is needed," Riordan told Clinton.

Money previously allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and private insurance companies is expected to fund repairs of about 30,000 of the 50,000 severely damaged dwelling units in Los Angeles.

City housing officials had already secured $110 million in funding from other federal and local sources, enough to repair another 5,000 units. But that left the owners of the remaining 15,000 or so units without any help, or hope.

The money Clinton requested Tuesday is expected to repair most of those remaining units, said Gary Squier, general manager of the Los Angeles city housing department.

"For the most part, these resources will take care of the bulk of the (remaining) damage," he said.

Particularly troubling for those housing officials trying to restore the city's damaged dwellings was the evolution of the so-called ghost towns, clusters of vacant, damaged buildings that became infested with vagrants, scavengers, drug dealers, gang members and even prostitutes.

Neighbors and city officials feared that the crime in those buildings would spread to nearby neighborhoods, and in some cases it quickly did. Two fires in vacant "ghost town" buildings already have been blamed on trespassers.

The city has launched an aggressive attack plan against ghost towns that includes police sweeps followed by crews boarding up and fencing off vacant buildings. In the latest step in that process, the city has hired round-the-clock security guards to keep trespassers out of the 12 ghost towns identified in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and Mid-City area.

The bulk of the money requested Tuesday will be available to owners within the ghost towns, city officials said.

After the phone conference with Clinton, Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose northeast Valley district includes two ghost towns, said the money "could not have come at a better time."

"This money, if approved by Congress, will make it possible for the city to deal with one of our biggest problems--the ghost-town buildings--which still represent a hazard to the community."

Another important aspect of the funding request is that the owners of severely damaged condominium units, which received an estimated $107-million damage in the quake, will have greater access to federal funds.

Times staff writer James Bornemeier contributed to this story from Washington.

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