The freeways have been stitched back together. The earthquake ride at Universal Studios is again drawing crowds. But more than 50,000 earthquake victims are still awaiting decisions from the U.S. Small Business Administration before they can begin rebuilding their lives.
Thousands of others have been denied government loans--and some say they have no way to repair their homes or rebuild their businesses.
A Times analysis shows that about half the loan applications processed by the SBA have been approved--a lower rate than in many previous disasters, including the Los Angeles riots.
The SBA has loaned nearly $2 billion to quake victims. But officials said many others could not qualify for loans because the recession and defense industry cutbacks already had left them in precarious financial condition.
"People are just plain debt-heavy," said Bernard Kulik, SBA assistant administrator for disaster assistance.
The SBA has processed only about a third of business applications, leaving about 25,000 businesses awaiting decisions. Three-fourths of home loan applications have been processed, with more than 25,000 pending.
Across Los Angeles, victims whose loan requests are pending or have been denied are coping as best they can.
Twenty miles from the epicenter, a Central American immigrant family in the Crenshaw district continues to live in a tent behind its devastated wood-frame home, purchased only three months before the Jan. 17 quake.
"We don't have our house, we have no money, we have nothing," said Maritza Ramirez, a nursing assistant and mother of two who was denied an SBA loan. She and her husband, who runs a delivery service, are still awaiting word on a government grant that, with a limit of $22,200, would not come close to the cost of replacing the sagging structure.
In Hollywood, dozens of ruined homes and apartment buildings look no different than they did hours after the quake, except that the red "unsafe to enter" tags posted by city building inspectors have now faded.
Some victims, however, laud the SBA for its swift response.
"If it were not for the SBA, I would not be in business today," said Keith T. Ackerman, who received a government loan to repair his San Fernando Valley home and his truck dealership within 17 days after the quake. "It was incredibly efficient."
SBA officials say they are drawing on a work force of 3,100--in offices from Sacramento to Niagara Falls--to process more applications for aid than in any previous U.S. disaster.
The earthquake unleashed an unprecedented 194,527 requests for SBA loans--more than from Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Hugo, the Midwest floods and the Loma Prieta earthquake combined. With an application deadline of July 18, the SBA is still receiving 500 applications a day.
"We're not happy about how long this is taking us," said Alfred Judd, SBA acting area director. "We're doing everything in our power to expedite it."
A Times computer analysis of SBA loan applications and interviews shows:
* Fifty-five percent of SBA applications processed so far have been approved, compared to 74% for the 1992 riots and 60% for Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the Midwest floods last year. The approval rate for last year's Southern California fires was 56%.
* Only about a third of the 68,000 applicants whose home or business loans were approved have thus far received checks. SBA officials said the checks were delayed because the applicants have not returned the closing documents.
Most homeowners who received loans got nearly as much as the amount of verified damage. About one out of four home-loan recipients got a sum covering 75% or less of the verified damage. The average loan to homeowners has been $25,840 and to businesses $57,400.
* The SBA has approved loans to 49% of the business applicants processed--far lower than the 76% approval rate for businesses damaged in the riots.
* Approval rates vary significantly in different parts of the region. Because loan approvals hinge on the applicant's ability to repay, well-to-do neighborhoods tend to have a higher approval rate than poorer communities, according to an analysis by ZIP code.
In the ZIP code that takes in Hollywood Boulevard, only 30% of business applicants processed to date have received approval. In a section of Santa Monica between Montana Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the approval rate for business applicants is 66%, and in one part of Simi Valley, 58%.
For home loans, the approval rate in one Hollywood ZIP code is 22%. One in Pacoima is 49%, and another in Southwest Los Angeles is 44%. In a Santa Clarita neighborhood, it is 69%.
* Most loans have gone to victims in the hard-hit San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, central and West Los Angeles and southern Ventura County. But checks have also been sent to victims as far away as Long Beach, Pomona, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.
Under the SBA disaster relief program, businesses with the ability to repay can receive up to $1.5 million for economic injury or physical damage to their buildings, machinery, equipment and inventory.
Major employers can receive more than $1.5 million each. Five businesses have so qualified, with Packard Bell and an affiliate receiving the largest loan--$19 million.
Homeowners can qualify for low-interest loans of up to $200,000 for home repairs or for refinancing and up to $40,000 for replacement of personal property.
The long-term SBA loans and emergency grants of up to $10,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are two of the primary forms of relief for disaster victims. FEMA has issued 319,150 checks since the quake.
Records show that the SBA denied loans to about 51,000 homeowners and 8,000 businesses through May 25--usually because the applicants could not take on additional debt.
"We are not in the business to deny loans," Kulik said. "We are in business to make as many as we can, but we also are in business to protect the taxpayers' money."
That, however, tends to cut out many businesses and homeowners most in need of assistance.
For businesses turned down by the SBA, there is no other government program. Homeowners have a safety net of sorts; if rejected by the SBA, they can seek an "individual and family grant" of up to $22,200.
Homeowners denied SBA loans also will be able to apply for loans of up to $50,000 through the state's California Natural Disaster Program if voters approve the earthquake bond on Tuesday's ballot.
Maritza Ramirez and husband, Arnoldo Rivera, thus far have received one $3,450 FEMA emergency assistance check, which has gone mainly for renting the tent and a portable toilet.
But, with their limited income, the couple were told they do not qualify for an SBA loan. They are hoping that a family assistance grant will help them out of their predicament.
"They say they will give us enough to rebuild, but we don't know," said Ramirez, a Guatemalan immigrant who was forced to jump out her bedroom window to safety when the house shook off its foundation during the quake.
In reality, the chances are almost nil that the couple will ever be able to rebuild with a government grant, since the maximum amount available is $22,200.
As Rivera looked out longingly from their back yard, two dozen Hollywood film production workers were sprucing up houses and lawns up the street in preparation for a location shoot.
"Maybe we need $100,000 to fix our house," said Ramirez. "And then you look at the money they're spending over there."
Albert DeFrancisco, 76, a Hollywood retiree whose home of 30 years is now decorated with a red tag, does not know what he will do since he has been turned down for an SBA loan.
Repairs have been estimated at $100,000, which DeFrancisco says he can ill afford. He and his wife are living in a one-bedroom apartment with a rent subsidy provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it expires in 18 months.
DeFrancisco said he might just let the city demolish the house, then sell the land. In the meantime, his house and others on the block have drawn "green-haired" squatters.
"The earthquake damage is nothing compared to what the vandals did," he said. "They trashed the place."
Many of the homeowners who have been denied SBA loans have yet to hear whether they will receive the grants of up to $22,200 administered by the state.
SBA officials say they have sent on the files of about 30,000 homeowners who were denied SBA loans for house repairs. But state officials say they have received fewer than 1,000 files. "Somebody's confused," said the SBA's Judd.
Brad and Lori Rose of Northridge, who were denied an SBA loan, are among those waiting to hear about a grant.
"We haven't heard anything from them and can't get them to call us back," said Brad Rose.
After months of dickering, the Roses said the SBA finally sent them a letter in mid-May, saying they needed better credit.
Brad Rose, a senior buyer for Thrifty, has fired off letters to a congressman and other officials saying that his family is "in a terrible Catch-22."
"I don't have $18,000 sitting around in the bank to use for repairs," he said. "And, hey, I've got expenses, like any young family with two kids--but I can assure you, if they gave me a loan for $180 a month, it won't push me into bankruptcy."
In Northridge, Jackie Jones has received SBA approval for a $15,000 home loan but has not yet been mailed her check because the SBA first needs a copy of her deed, which was destroyed during the quake.
"It was in my safe and got soaked with water," said Jones, the owner of a coffee shop. "I'm waiting to get a new copy of my deed from the county. . . . I'm almost getting used to living in the rubble."
After losing his South-Central liquor store during the riots, Hong Soo Kim bought a new business--but just six months into operation it sustained $40,000 in quake damage. He was denied an SBA loan because of his outstanding debts.
"What's exasperating for me is that they're treating my case as a loan officer might at a regular bank," said Kim. "But my request (for a loan) is not just a routine application. I was wiped out because of the riots. Just as I was trying to get back on my feet . . . the earthquake struck. Shouldn't these exigent circumstances be taken into account?"
It takes an average of 62 days for the SBA to process loans. SBA officials acknowledge that there have been delays, particularly between loan approval and mailing of checks. But they say they are moving to speed up the process.
"We've had troubles. There's no doubt about it," Kulik said. "We did not at the very beginning think it was going to be as big as it was."
Homeowners have been getting a bigger chunk of the cash primarily because such loans are easier to process, Kulik said, adding that the SBA has no formal policy putting homeowners ahead of business owners.
According to The Times' computer analysis, SBA approval of business loans was higher in poorer neighborhoods after the riots than it has been in higher-income communities after the quake.
For example, two-thirds of 100 loan applications were approved for riot-damaged businesses in the ZIP code encompassing Watts. Three-fourths of 237 applications were approved in part of Compton. And 90% of 64 applications were approved in the Willowbrook area.
But less than half of 348 applications filed by quake-damaged businesses in one Sylmar neighborhood have been approved.
A section of West Adams, hard hit by the riots and the earthquake, recorded a lower approval rate for quake loans than riot loans. For the riots, 84% of 221 loan applications from businesses were approved. For the quake, only 47% of 148 business loan applications have been approved.
SBA officials attribute the lower rate of approval for quake loans to the differences in the types of businesses damaged and the extent of the losses.
"In the riots, most of the businesses were retail," Kulik said. But he said the earthquake affected almost every type of business, many already struggling financially from the recession and defense-industry downsizing.
"We're estimating that about 20% of the business loan applications that we get are coming from businesses that are defense-related," Kulik added.
In some inner-city areas, many residents have failed to take advantage of the government assistance programs. Many homeowners would qualify for outright cash grants, officials say, but cannot receive them unless they first file for an SBA loan and receive a rejection notice.
To encourage applications, the city of Los Angeles has funded an outreach program for these residents, some of whom say they have had difficulty obtaining loans at reasonable rates in the past.
"They don't understand the SBA is more than likely to be their friend," said Bertha Frazier, a business development officer administering the outreach program for the Community Financial Resource Center.
Crenshaw district septuagenarians Virginia and Otis Gaddison are among the wary.
The Gaddisons received an initial $1,200 FEMA grant that they used to patch a fence, fix the water heater and replace a few broken windows. But they have paid out of their own pockets for more expensive repairs, such as bolting their foundation and replacing their concrete porch.
They said they did not want to bother applying for an SBA loan because they are too old to start thinking about paying back a long-term loan, even at 3% interest.
Besides, said Otis Gaddison, a retired maintenance worker, "the man gives nothing but nickels and dimes."
Contributing to this article were Richard O'Reilly, Times director of computer analysis, data analyst Sandra Poindexter and staff writer K. Connie Kang.
The federal Small Business Administration has approved $349 million in business loans and $1.5 billion in home loans for quake victims through May 25. This map shows the distribution of home and business loans. Each toned are includes a number of ZIP codes.
Areas in which payments per ZIP code reached:
Up to $1 million
$1 million to $10 million
$10 million to $50 million
More than $50 million