In the six years after the devastating Northridge earthquake, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sold 18 units in a 50-unit condominium complex in North Hills that was so badly damaged in the quake that two private engineering reports called for much of the development to be torn down and rebuilt.
Some of the homes in the Nordhoff Townhomes complex at 9047 Langdon Avenue were sold to investors hoping to snap up properties at bargain prices. Others were sold to buyers who said they were never told about the condition of the property.
"I was shocked that the federal government would allow property to be sold and not think about the consequences," said Myron Mikkelson, 50. "You have a government selling you property that's not worth the money you paid for it."
Top HUD officials say that the agency, like some homeowners, was in the dark about the questions raised regarding the structural integrity of the complex.
HUD officials said they did not learn of the engineering reports--written in 1995 and 1999--until last month.
"This is of concern to us," said William Apgar, federal housing commissioner with HUD in Washington. "We were not aware of the damage. . . . We had no indication.
"Now that we're aware, we will not be putting more people in this building."
The Federal Housing Administration, an arm of HUD, insures mortgages for buyers who might otherwise be shut out of the housing market, such as those with little or no money for a down payment or with checkered credit records. Last year, 80% of the FHA's loans went to first-time buyers, while 38% of FHA's borrowers were members of minority groups. When a buyer defaults on a loan, which has occurred 19 times at the Nordhoff Townhomes complex since the earthquake, HUD pays off the lender and takes back the property.
Some attorneys and quake assistance groups say the problem facing the homeowners at Nordhoff goes beyond HUD-owned homes, to properties throughout the San Fernando Valley.
"One of the things we've seen over and over again is all kinds of sales being made in which no one pulled up the carpet to check to see that the slab was cracked," said George Kehrer, executive director of CARE, a nonprofit group that has assisted quake victims. "You've started seeing the tip of the iceberg now."
HUD's own policies clearly state that the agency, which has helped millions of low-income and minority renters become homeowners by guaranteeing mortgages, will not accept damaged goods. After a borrower defaults on a HUD-backed loan, the lender (typically a bank or mortgage company) is required to correct any known defects before transferring ownership to HUD.
HUD officials noted that lenders kept issuing mortgages for units in the complex--for HUD-backed units as well as other units--throughout the last six years.
Beyond that, HUD officials insist that the agency discloses any problems that it knows about, and encourages prospective buyers to hire private inspectors before closing a deal. However, the homeowners interviewed by The Times said no one mentioned getting an inspection to them.
Before HUD units are sold, appraisers, who work under contract for the agency or the lender, are required to report "any defects identified or observed to us and to the buyer," Apgar said. "They're also supposed to check any records to see if there are any actions."
The Nordhoff Townhomes Homeowners Assn. filed a lawsuit in 1998 against an affiliate of Farmers Insurance Group, seeking money to rebuild the complex and detailing the structural problems. But HUD officials say their appraisers do not check court records for civil suits.
They say that if a property is beyond redemption it is taken off the market--as the North Hills complex was last month.
"Now that we're aware of this, we are making sure that no [additional] sales would be made, which has been our policy all along," Apgar said.
Some homeowners said they were amazed that HUD could have been ignorant of the problems with the complex, built in 1979, saying there were many distress signals.
The property was green-tagged as safe to occupy immediately after the earthquake, according to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. But city officials at the time were racing to inspect buildings, and in the months after the quake more problems surfaced.
One key area of concern was the concrete roof of the underground garage, which served as the foundation for 24 units in buildings A and B of the complex.
The homeowners association commissioned a report that recommended that the concrete roof and supporting columns "be removed and replaced." The report was issued in December 1995 by the civil engineering firm of Carmichael and Associates.
A second report, issued Sept. 21, 1999, by a Santa Monica civil engineering company, declared that the "elevated concrete slab of the parking garage for buildings A and B suffered permanent structural damage as a result of . . . the Northridge earthquake."