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Simi Valley Quake Loan Program May Be Revamped : Rebuilding: Complaints prompt city to consider changing definition of moderate-income homeowners.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Prompted by complaints from homeowners, the Simi Valley City Council is poised to revamp a program that aids families with earthquake-damaged homes.

The complaints of homeowner Garry Chessen, in particular, alerted Councilwoman Barbara Williamson that changes in the city’s program were needed.

“It was apparent that somehow he had fallen through the cracks,” she said.

Chessen, whose home sustained about $68,000 in damage in last January’s quake, was told he was not eligible for one of the city’s low-interest loans because his annual income of $78,000 exceeded the $69,500 definition of a moderate income for a family of five.

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“We don’t have earthquake insurance, and we were not able to get (a loan),” he said. “We thought we were just the kind of people that the program was set up to help.”

Started in July, Simi Valley’s Home Rehabilitation Program is using about $3.6 million in federal money for low-interest loans and grants to owners of damaged housing. Loans of up to $20,000 are available to low- and moderate-income homeowners.

Residents with low incomes--below $39,000 for a family of four--may also qualify for grants of up to $5,000.

Chessen’s complaints have prompted the city to consider changing the definition of moderate-income homeowners. One suggested change would allow homeowners to deduct a portion of their home repair costs from their annual income.

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“We don’t want to just raise the levels,” said Dulce Conde-Sierra, deputy city housing director. “That could be seen as arbitrary.”

“What if we were to raise the level to $100,000 today, and then tomorrow someone making $105,000 comes in and asks to raise it a little bit more,” she said. “The reason we have the (income) criteria is to make sure the money goes to those that need it most.”

On top of Chessen’s complaints on the income criteria, the city received several complaints that it took too long for homeowners to receive aid once they qualified.

Of the more than 280 families that applied, only 35 have received help, Conde-Sierra said.

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One of the holdups, she said, is the requirement that each applicant get two cost estimates on repairs before a grant or loan is approved.

“The biggest stumbling block is that it is taking so long to get bids on the repairs,” she said.

It is hard to find qualified contractors who are not already busy doing work and have time to make prompt estimates, Conde-Sierra said.

To speed the process, the city may allow homeowners to proceed with a single estimate on repairs--as long as that estimate is consistent with those of the city housing department.

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Along with these changes, the council Monday night will consider several other modifications to the rehabilitation program.

“What I’m hoping for is that we can do something to help these people that are displaced or close to losing their homes,” Williamson said. “We need to find the best alternative to help these people out.”


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