Riot Still Taking Its Toll--in Evictions : Housing: Hundreds of victims--many of them merchants--are losing their homes. Legal aid attorneys blame slow and inadequate relief efforts.


On the second night of last spring's riots, Javier Iniquez was dragged from his car and beaten by a crowd of looters while driving home from the Cerritos manufacturing plant where he painted furniture. During the harrowing attack, Iniquez's right hand was badly broken, forcing him to quit his job.

But he had reason to hope. When then-President George Bush swept through the city to view the devastation, he took time to talk with Iniquez, who was applying for emergency aid at a disaster center.

"He said I would have no problem getting what I needed and I believed him," Iniquez said.

Today, not only is Iniquez's hand unhealed, he and his family of six are being evicted from their home because not enough federal money came through for him.

Iniquez is one of hundreds of riot victims who, having been deprived of their livelihoods because of the unrest, are struggling to keep roofs over their heads and balance in their lives. Many seem to be waging a losing battle.

They are mostly small merchants who were burned out, or employees whose bosses were affected by the riots. They represent all of Los Angeles' cultural mix and, in many cases, the best of its entrepreneurial spirit. They were stunned by the magnitude of the riots' assault on their lives and are shocked that relief efforts seem to have failed them.

The number of evictions handled by the Legal Aid Society's Eviction Defense Center increased by an average of more than 350 a month immediately after the riots. Total evictions for the year topped an unprecedented 10,600, said Director Roberto Aldalpe, whose center handles about 30% of all central Los Angeles court filings.

Many cases involve victims who have exhausted grant monies or have found that anticipated aid will not be available. Legal aid attorneys contend that victims have been burdened by overly restrictive emergency aid programs, arguing that it is impossible to recover the losses of a lifetime's work in only a year.

Although some landlords may have shown patience in the riots' aftermath, many are demanding that back rent be paid. Such is the case with Iniquez.

"I've never been dependent on anybody and don't want to depend on anyone now but what can I do?" Iniquez asked.

His family owes $2,500 in back rent on the small Cudahay house he and his wife lease for $900 a month. They were served with an eviction notice but are fighting to remain in the home and are scheduled to be in court April 5. "The landlord said he can't wait no more, he wants the money now."

Like many riot victims, Iniquez applied for emergency aid for medical bills and rent until he could get back to work. Doctors who set his hand in a cast after he was beaten said that he would be able to work again but that his injury would need further treatment.

He received a $2,800 grant to pay for medical expenses but he said he was told that because his 19-year-old son had helped pay some bills, Iniquez was not eligible for rental aid.

So instead of therapy to mend his hand, he used the money to pay past-due rent and living expenses.

"I have to use a spray gun to do my job so I haven't worked since then," said Iniquez, extending a hand that is still swollen and misshapen from a protruding bone. "I've tried to find someplace where I could be trained for another kind of job and I can't find anything."

Margarito Juarez and his family are about to be evicted for the second time since the small electronics repair shop the family operated near Florence and Normandie avenues burned. He, his wife and five children watched from their apartment behind the shop as stores were looted, as people--including trucker Reginald O. Denny--were pulled from autos and finally as angry men pointed at his store and ran toward it. The terrified family jumped in their van and fled.

Later, Juarez saw the drama's conclusion. While watching a newscast, Juarez saw the family van rounding a corner just as his shop exploded in flames.

The family rented another apartment for a few months but fell behind in rent and were forced to leave. Unable to afford anything else, they moved into the repair shop's garage, which had survived the riots, although it had no heat, lighting or utilities. But the Juarez family recently received a foreclosure notice from the mortgage company, saying they must vacate even that wretched space. The family applied for emergency rental assistance and a Small Business Administration loan soon after the riots but were told they did not qualify, Juarez said.

Still, the family remained optimistic because city officials who had heard of their plight promised they would get what they needed to rebuild. Nothing ever came, Jaurez said.

"I feel used because they made me believe all the promises and then they didn't come through," he said. "But I haven't lost faith. I think the riot was an isolated event. We just want to restart out business and not let opportunities go to waste."

Nathan Woods lives a short distance from one of the riots' flash points in South-Central. He remembers watching young people in cars riding through the streets holding aloft clenched fists and seeing a store on the corner of 55th Street and Normandie light up the night sky as it burned. As with so many other Los Angeles residents, life for the Woods family has not been the same since.

Woods says he owes $2,700 in rent, money he has not been able to recoup because the riots virtually destroyed his fledgling maintenance business.

Because Woods cannot attract the neighborhood accounts he once did, he has been unable to keep up payments on the truck he bought to support the landscaping work he performed.

Worse, the riots have had a devastating impact on his 5-year-old son, Paul, who was born with bladder and respiratory problems.

Two blocks from the Woods' Denker Street apartment, a paint store went up in flames. Paul had been scheduled to undergo surgery but after reaching the hospital, doctors discovered so much latex in his lungs that he was in danger of dying. The family later learned that Paul is allergic to latex.

Woods' wife, Betty, had been working at a mailing firm but was fired for taking too much time off to spend with her sick son, he said.

The family applied for emergency rental assistance and an SBA loan but could not prove their financial hardships were directly related to the riots, said Woods.

Legal aid attorneys contend that much of the continuing struggles of riot victims stems from slow and inadequate relief efforts on the part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

According to FEMA's figures, fewer than half of applicants for rental and mortgage assistance have been found eligible, two-thirds of the applicants for disaster housing grants have been denied aid and of nearly 6,000 who applied for individual and family grants, little more than 1,000 have been found eligible.

In many of the rejected cases, FEMA officials say, applicants failed to prove that their losses were riot-related or produced unverifiable documentation to support their claims. Legal aid attorneys argue, however, that FEMA has placed unfair restrictions on many of its disaster programs.

"I definitely think that the way FEMA has mismanaged its response to the disaster here has been a disaster of perhaps greater proportions," said Cynthia D. Robbins, directing attorney for Urban Recovery Legal Assistance, an offshoot of the public interest law firm Public Counsel that has aided riot victims.

Frank Kishton, the federal coordinating officer for the Los Angeles disaster, disputed the charge.

"We have worked extremely hard in reducing the number of forms and the amount of paperwork and in cases where they didn't have papers we worked with (victims) to re-create records," said Kishton, who added that he cannot discuss individual cases because of confidentiality concerns. "We have a very proactive staff working every way possible to meet the needs of victims."

But Robbins said those efforts have fallen far short: "We have numerous clients who had a threadbare safety net last spring, which they managed to hold together during the course of the summer but which has fallen apart this winter."

Robbins said her office sees several clients each week who are on the verge of eviction or foreclosure and that there are many more who have been forced to leave homes and stay with relatives or friends.

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