NORTHRIDGE — The Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake fractured ceiling beams, shattered windows, sheared Sheetrock walls and bent anchor bolts at the Northridge Oaks apartment complex on White Oak Avenue. But somehow, a potted fern appears to have held its perch atop the ledge of a ground floor balcony.
The fern is there today, still visible through the chain-link fence that surrounds the complex. But its once-green fronds have turned a burnt brown, the color of nine months of neglect. For the fern, the quake itself was easier to endure than what followed.
In some ways, the same might be said of owners of quake-damaged apartment buildings near the epicenter.
Some apartment owners have no tenants and no income, but still must meet their mortgage payments. Many must decide whether to sell at a fraction of what their properties could fetch a few years ago, or shoulder daunting debts to rebuild for an uncertain rental market. All face frustrations ranging from financing delays to vandalism.
"It is a horrible, disconcerting experience," said Howard Sachar, owner for 15 years of the 97-unit Northridge Oaks complex until he sold the property in disgust three months ago. "In 45 seconds, mother nature can change your life."
More than 18,000 apartment units were rendered uninhabitable by the quake throughout Los Angeles, according to housing officials. Fifteen neighborhoods were damaged so severely that they are officially termed "ghost towns."
Two of these ghost towns straddle the campus of Cal State Northridge. Filled with vast complexes that housed thousands of students and young families, these neighborhoods suffered $31.6 million in damage. Twenty-eight of the 36 apartment buildings in these areas were tagged with yellow or red markers by building inspectors--strictly limiting access or denying access altogether to the properties.
Owners of three red-tagged properties in these neighborhoods have taken different roads since the quake. One apartment owner is rebuilding with high hopes, another sold in frustration, and a third said she just wishes her troubles would end.
At the corner of White Oak Avenue and Lassen Street, construction workers buzz about a three-story hive called the White Ridge Apartments. Scaffolding surrounds the building's gray stucco exterior, and giant, moon-shaped windows have already been installed in the luxury apartments on the top floor.
Elias Karraa, owner of White Ridge since it was built in 1987, is among the first in the area to rebuild, and he wishes his apartment complex neighbors would hurry up and join him.
"People do not like to live among ruins," said Karraa, 61, clutching the gold-colored keys to his new Cadillac.
In good years, Karraa's 42-unit building provided him $50,000 in profits annually. After the quake, Karraa was told the building would have to come down. But he found a structural engineer with a more hopeful prognosis, and he considers the repair project under way a marvel of engineering.
The upper floors sustained little damage in the quake, but the bottom floor was knocked so hard it leaned sideways by nine inches. To yank the building back into alignment, workers connected cables from the building's cement foundation to the floorboards on the second floor.
Each night, the workers increased the tension on the cables slightly, and gradually, the building straightened out. To keep it that way, workers are installing dozens of new beams, anchor bolts to the foundation, and sturdy plywood walls.
Instead of a repair bill that could have totaled $2.5 million, Karraa said he expects to pay about $1.1 million. That savings is critical for Karraa, who, like most apartment owners, didn't have earthquake insurance.
"We didn't think an earthquake was going to hit," said Karraa, who operates a Tarzana-based property management firm. "Insurance would have cost $2,000 a month, and I'd rather go invest it in the stock market."
To pay for the repairs--as well as repairs on two other apartment buildings he owns--Karraa secured a $1.5-million loan from the Small Business Administration, a federal agency that offers low-interest loans to disaster victims.
He also persuaded his bank to forgive $652,000 of his $4.4-million mortgage, and to allow him to stop making his $15,000 monthly payments until he gets his first renter.
The building could be ready to rent by February, Karraa said. By offering a free month's rent to new tenants, and by reversing his former policy against pets, he expects the White Ridge apartments to be 90% occupied and breaking even within two years.
"I'm an optimist," Karraa said.