Oakland Rebuilding Accelerates

But homeowners fight red tape after fire

THE hills are alive with the sound of ... air hammers, saws, and huge trucks.

"Look at these monsters," exclaims lifelong resident Billy Loo from a steep hill overlooking Oakland, San Francisco, and other Bay Area communities. A huge Mack truck noisily belches soot across Hiller Highlands, where Mr. Loo's three-story house is just weeks shy of completion.

Nine months after one of the worst fires in United States history leveled 3,500 homes in this posh hillside community, rebuilding efforts have begun to accelerate. Perhaps a dozen homes have been completed and occupied. Some, like Loo's, are ahead of the crowd because building permits still existed in city files. Others, like that of neighbor James Jee, are several months from completion because of red tape in securing insurance money, architectural plans, and permits.

"The rebuilding has entered a new stage," says Judy Kelsey, director of the Community Restoration Development Center (CRDC), which is overseeing every phase of reconstruction. In May, Mayor Elihu Harris predicted 1,353 single-family homes would be built through summer.

To date, the center has issued 319 building permits and reviewed plans for 630. Officials anticipate a surge of activity in August and September both to take advantage of prime building weather and to beat a mid-October anniversary deadline. About $800 million of an estimated $1.2 billion in insurance claims has been paid out by the more than 20 firms covering homeowners, according to David Fountain of the Sacramento-based Personal Insurance Federation.

One important story of the fire's aftermath has been the high number of underinsured policyholders - as well as the struggles of those with policies that provide for "full replacement value."

For instance, Mr. Jee, who was insured with a California veterans group, is appealing his company's policy of covering only his home's physical structure. The $200,000 check with which he is building anew does not cover his estimated loss of $60,000 in personal belongings.

Because there were many discrepancies in policy language and coverage formulas, a grass-roots group known as United Policy Holders was able to pressure insurance companies into upgrading nearly 1,000 policies to "full replacement value status," says Mona Lombard, Oakland City spokeswoman.

"It was a long, drawn-out process," says Ina Belong, president of United Policy Holders. Employed by a major carrier for 22 years, Ms. Belong saw the need for an insurance-consumer advocacy group, based on her personal knowledge of how policyholders were treated differently based on their educational level or ability to understand policy language. Formed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the group has succeeded in nearly two-thirds of its attempts to get policies upgraded.

"Problems are now arising because adjusters and policyholders can't agree on the exact cost of personal items," Mr. Fountain says. He also says that some construction companies have attempted to increase their rates to take advantage of policies. "We've seen companies up their estimates from $90 per square foot before the fire to $400 afterwards."

Overall, however, observers from city government to homeowners' associations say the rebuilding is going smoothly. Given the uniqueness and scope of the tragedy, the one-stop CRDC center has speeded recovery by placing city, state, and federal agencies in one location, along with insurance and utility personnel.

One concern of city officials and homeowner associations alike is that the community retain its former look and feel. New building codes have demanded upgrades in fire-retardant materials and designs. But zoning requirements now allow 10 percent larger homes on most lots. And owners may rebuild design features that existed at the time of the fire, but which were prohibited in subsequent zoning laws.

Although the city of Oakland is in serious financial straits, along with most other California municipalities, voters in June approved a bond measure that will upgrade the city's firefighting capabilities.

"The bond will add new facilities and refurbish others, increase the department's ability to communicate with itself, and obtain new devices for forecasting and emergency response," says city spokesman Tom Doctor.

With the city handling about 10 times its normal load of construction permits, it has had to enact temporary ordinances to deal with traffic and the parking of utility and construction vehicles along the community's narrow labyrinthine roads.

"After six months, we're used to the commotion," says Augusto Brusca, standing with his wife, Rosalee, on Golden Gate Ave. Though their home was spared, several million-dollar homes across the street were leveled. "We expect it to be like this for about two years," he says.

According to a city survey in March, only 557 of 900 respondents said they would rebuild. Yesterday, a special groundbreaking ceremony accompanied the start of an 80-townhouse unit in the Hiller Highlands that some see as pivotal to whether or not they will want to stay.

"Lots of people are holding on to their lots to see how the neighborhood shapes up," Ms. Lombard says. "If things look good, they'll stay."

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