Not even the Northridge earthquake could put much of a dent in the San Fernando Valley's housing glut.
Entire blocks of apartments were wrecked Jan. 17, but thousands of units still go begging. Signs touting "1st Month Free" and "Low Move-In Costs" hang from buildings throughout the Valley.
Even so, many renters evicted by the quake remain without a permanent home because the available apartments are either too posh, too dangerous or too far away.
City housing authorities say most of the more than 30,000 people temporarily displaced by the quake have found housing, some with government assistance and others with their own savings.
But for many of the Valley's working poor, the local housing market is a lot like the predicament of food and world hunger: There's plenty to go around, but a lot is in the wrong place or at too high a price.
"We could place just about anybody who walks in, but some of the areas are not the greatest," said Mike Baker, who works for a nonprofit social service agency assisting earthquake victims at a disaster assistance center in Chatsworth.
Besides rough neighborhoods, many refuse to move into apartments that are poorly maintained.
"Everyone has a right to decent housing," said Del Richardson of Beyond Shelter, one of seven nonprofit agencies now working under the Los Angeles Housing Authority to help displaced residents find a new home. "Even Charles Manson has a home."
As part of the nation's largest disaster relief effort, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has set aside $200 million to help the poorest of those left homeless by the quake.
Thousands of families have taken advantage of the emergency help, known as Section 8 housing assistance, which provides an 18-month rent subsidy and virtually guarantees rent for landlords.
The federal money, administered by the Los Angeles Housing Authority, also pays for social service workers to help families hunt through apartment listings, to drive them to see the buildings and to help negotiate with landlords.
Many are still looking for the perfect apartment. In Los Angeles, for example, nearly 14,000 families have qualified for the federal housing subsidy, but so far only about 6,000 have actually used it.
One reason is that many people are trying to move to better neighborhoods, according to those who work at the four disaster assistance centers in the Valley.
"Poor people want the same things everyone else wants," including better housing and safe schools, said Jeff Farber of the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency assisting earthquake victims in Van Nuys.
So it is no surprise that available apartments in communities such as Panorama City, Van Nuys and Reseda far outnumber those in Encino, Sherman Oaks and Chatsworth.
The emergency housing subsidies can be applied to any apartment or house that meets minimum safety standards. The subsidies apply, for example, to a two-bedroom unit costing up to $864 and to a three-bedroom unit costing up to $1,167.
The vacancy rate for rental housing in the Valley before the earthquake was about 13%, meaning that 25,000 or so apartments were empty, mostly one- and two-bedroom units, according to a survey last summer by the local apartment owners association.
The earthquake wrecked about 3% of the apartments in the city, leaving plenty of empty units to house the displaced, according to city building and safety records.
But that doesn't mean the housing problems created by the earthquake can be easily solved.
One apartment complex on Parthenia Street in Northridge, for example, welcomes prospective tenants with huge signs and bunting.
But Chris Breazell, who needs to find a home for himself, his wife and 2-week-old baby, gave this response: "That's not a bad area if you wear Kevlar," referring to the material used to make bulletproof vests.
"You sympathize because who wants to live in an area that's not safe?" said RaaataCarter, a housing relief worker in the Valley.
Less understandable are the reactions of Karen Peyrot--who will only have to pay $150 rent, with the government paying the balance for a two-bedroom unit under the Section 8 program. Social workers found her a squeaky-clean two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the upscale Valley Village neighborhood of North Hollywood. The building has a pool and central air conditioning, and is about two miles from her son's school.
But after a visit last week, she was undecided because the balcony overlooked a parking lot.
"The apartment looked nice but I don't like the view," said the unemployed mother of two.
Relief workers say Peyrot is not typical of the clients they try to help. But her position underscores the lengths to which Washington has gone to accommodate Southern California's earthquake victims.
Thousands of others, less picky, have trouble getting into even the least desirable apartments because they are saddled with bad credit, a record of evictions or a host of other troubles.
Many larger families also need affordable three- and four-bedroom homes, which are at a premium.
Also slowing the process are landlords who refuse to participate in the government-funded program. None are required to do so.
Relief workers say landlords resist filling out forms and are fearful that they will be forever obligated to house tenants on government relief.
Part of Liz Mohler's job is to persuade Sherman Oaks-area landlords to accept tenants receiving the 18-month government subsidies.
"There are a lot of false illusions about the program," said Mohler, who works for a nonprofit agency called On Your Feet, which offers help at the disaster assistance center in Sherman Oaks. Some owners are afraid they cannot evict the government-assisted tenants if there is trouble, and wonder what will happen when the government payments stop next year.
For many other landlords, the quake has been a boon to business.
Denise Baruch, vice president of J & D Baruch Management Co., which manages eight apartment buildings in Studio City, Sherman Oaks and Sylmar, said the number of vacant apartments has fallen from nearly 60 to about a dozen since the quake.
About one-third of those vacancies were filled with tenants under the federal emergency subsidy program, she said.
Others landlords have not been as lucky.
Larry Papazian, who manages the Philian Apartments on Dickens Street, just a block south of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, said he wonders where all apartment tenants who were displaced by the quake have gone.
Two apartments at his complex remain empty two months after the quake.
"I thought man it would fill up like that," said Papazian, snapping his fingers. "But they're still empty."
Papazian said cost may be a factor. A one-bedroom apartment at his complex costs $650 a month, about $100 more than what tenants paid in less-pricey communities such as North Hollywood or Van Nuys.
So far, he has had inquiries from two prospective tenants who are eligible for the government subsidy. Each was qualified for a studio apartment--at a maximum rent of $570 a month--and asked for a discount.
Papazian refused, saying, "We're not raising our rents because of the earthquake, but we're also not dropping them either."
Mary Ellen Hughes, who is the executive director of the Apartment Assn. of San Fernando Valley/Ventura County, which represents 3,000 apartment owners, said the Valley streets she travels to work each morning are cluttered with apartment buildings with vacancy signs.
The initial boost in apartment inquiries that overwhelmed her office has since died off.
"Our members are beginning to call back, and they are saying that nobody is calling them anymore," Hughes said.
Charles Isham, the executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, might know why. His office--which serves apartment owners south of the Santa Monica Mountains--runs tenant credit checks for members.
Rental applications increased 23% in February over the same month last year, in part because of an exodus of residents from the San Fernando Valley.
"There was a desire by folks to escape the trauma," Isham said.
Matchmaking of prospective tenants and landlords is expected to improve when a computerized listing is installed at the city's seven disaster service centers. The Metropolitan Housing Bank, operating with federal funds, received approval last weekto buy computers that will list available housing, price, location and amenities.
Disaster relief workers now depend on listings from the city housing authority, local newspapers and their own eyes as they drive the Valley looking for vacancy signs.
Despite the difficulties, they have found homes for people such as Robert Morriss, 38, an unemployed artist who has been living in a borrowed camper since his Sherman Oaks apartment was declared uninhabitable.
"It feels great," said Morris last Monday, the first day at his new apartment, also in Sherman Oaks. "Things are starting to look a little better for me."
Two days later, Sherry Jenkins, 24, was about to cry with joy after finally finding an apartment for her herself and her three children. The mother, who is receiving welfare payments, said she had been living in her car for more than a week.
"A weight has been lifted off my shoulders," Jenkins said.
Beyond the immediate successes of the federally funded program, Barbara Zeidman, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles City Housing Department, said policy-makers should be planning for the future, when the government help expires.
"To me, the great unknown is not where we are today, but where are we going to be in 15 months," when the 18-month government subsidies end, Zeidman said. "There is no doubt that when they expire, many will not be able to afford to stay where they are."
* AID LOGJAM: Landlords struggle through the small-business loan process. B1