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QUAKE RECOVERY : Uncertainty : Rebuilding Efforts Are a Study in Frustration

October 25, 1994|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 112-unit Woodridge apartment complex stretches along Plummer Street near Reseda Boulevard. Its facade of tan stucco and dark brown shingles reveals little quake damage, but the sagging east end of the complex dangles precariously over empty parking spaces, and is propped up on wooden boxes that look like coffins.

Beverly Jones, co-owner of the property since it was built in 1970, shudders every time she looks across the street at the remains of the infamous Northridge Meadows apartment complex, where 16 people died in the quake. No one was injured at her complex, Jones said, and though one of her buildings collapsed, the other four at the complex are still standing. Still, Jones doesn't feel lucky.

"There's not a day that goes by that doesn't have a new problem," said Jones, a clinical psychologist who lives in West Los Angeles. "When does this ease up? When can I get on with my life?"

Since the quake, thieves have stripped her complex of its light fixtures, air conditioners, shower doors, and almost anything of value. Some looters pulled up in pickup trucks, which they loaded with items thrown from second-story windows. Recently, thieves cut electrical wiring in the apartments so they could take the circuit breakers. "They take anything," Jones said. "Even old used light bulbs."

The complex has also been a haven for squatters who crawl through broken windows, crash through quake-jammed doors, and sleep on mattresses left behind by tenants, Jones said. Some squatters have even started small fires in the rooms.

Last spring, Jones and a clean-up crew walked through the supposedly empty complex to remove rotting food left behind by tenants. They found toilets that hadn't worked since the quake filled with urine and feces. When the toilet bowls filled up, Jones said, the squatters simply relieved themselves on the carpet of a room next-door.

Even skateboarders have been a scourge, ruining the empty swimming pool by skating up one side and down the next. Jones tried to stop them by filling the pool with construction scaffolding, but the skateboarders simply removed the mini-roadblocks and skated on.

The estimated cost of vandalism and theft has already reached $150,000, Jones said, and it climbs a little higher every week. The problem has waned since electricity and lighting were restored to portions of the property. An employee of the construction crew Jones hired to rebuild the complex now sleeps in one of the undamaged apartments, she said, and the city has begun patrolling the ghost town neighborhood.

Jones recently received a $1.5-million loan from the SBA. Jones said the loan should cover rebuilding costs, and she hopes to begin construction within a few weeks. But many uncertainties remain. After the complex is rebuilt, for instance, will anyone want to move in?

Most of her former tenants were CSUN students, Jones said, and she went to great lengths to keep them happy. She kept rents relatively low--$600 for a one-bedroom and $750 for a two-bedroom--and rewarded good students by offering a $5 discount for every A on a tenant's report card.

Still, 16 units were empty before the quake and occupancy rates have been sinking throughout Northridge in recent years. Even without any rental income, Jones must make monthly mortgage payments of about $12,000, and soon even more with her SBA loan.

"I don't know what the market is going to be like," Jones said. "I could rehab the building and then not be able to afford my SBA loan."

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