High-Rise Tenants Sue, Start Rent Strike to Protest Renovation, Asbestos Hazard

Times Staff Writer

In the beginning it all seemed so desirable.

Life in a circular 31-story high-rise with a view from Newport Beach to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. A luxurious life style for rents averaging $1,000 a month that featured the use of a swimming pool, round-the-clock security and neighbors with high incomes. And a planned conversion project that would allow apartment renters to become condominium owners.

"It was just a super place to live," said Gene Wade, a mechanical engineer who has spent the last three years residing on the 16th floor of the International Towers near downtown Long Beach. Built in 1966, the building is a local landmark that tenants believe is one of the tallest high-rises on the Southern California coast. "It was probably the first time in my adult life that I really wanted to come home," Wade said.

Tenants Filed Lawsuit

That was before workers began tearing out asbestos-laden ceilings. And changing the plumbing. And painting the walls.

"They could not have infringed on anyone's rights any more if they had taken a bulldozer and knocked the place down," said Robert Speas, an attorney who has lived in the building for 1 1/2 years.

So 60 tenants got together and filed a lawsuit. They also notified the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which cited the owners of the 204-unit complex for allegedly removing toxic asbestos illegally and in a way that may have endangered residents' and visitors' lives. Several other local and state agencies say they are investigating the situation. And tenants have organized what they say may be the first of its kind: a luxury rent strike.

"We have the same rights as people in the barrios have," reasoned resident E. Scott Ellis, who, among other things, serves as board chairman for the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency that provides low-cost housing in Orange County.

Owners Consider Suit Frivolous

Richard Blaskey, an attorney representing Perini Land & Development Corp., the Delaware-based owner of the building, would not comment except to say that his clients consider the lawsuit "frivolous and without merit."

Bob Treese, a resident of seven years, says the disgruntled tenants represent only a small portion of the 120 units currently occupied. "They don't speak for me and they don't speak for lots of tenants," said Treese, owner of a marine hardware manufacturing company. "They are in here at a pretty cheap rate and they don't like the idea of having to buy. (The strike) is just an aggravation that will delay construction."

Those involved in it, however, say that their battle against the owners grew out of genuine frustration--not with the conversion itself, but with the manner in which the work was being completed.

Nobody was surprised by the conversion plans, they say. On the drawing boards since 1981, the work was finally begun in January of this year. Residents were given the option of moving out or remaining to eventually buy their units at a discount. Many remained. But despite assurances by the building's management that disruptions would be minimal, they say, the disruptions have endangered their health, invaded their privacy, undermined their peace of mind and generally diminished the value of the habitations for which they were paying.

"It was so bad (at one point) that you couldn't find the elevator for the dust," Speas said.

Added Ellis: "I would awaken at 7 a.m. and there would be a (worker's) face peering into the (balcony) window."

$100 Million Damages Asked

Among other things, the tenants' suit accuses the owners of failing to provide habitable premises by effectively eliminating the use of all common areas, including the swimming pool; forcing tenants to suffer plumbing problems and unannounced water shut-offs; allowing unlimited access to the extent that security is nonexistent; blocking stairwells and corridors with debris, and creating noxious and unpleasant odors by improperly storing various paints and thinners in living areas.

The suit asks that rents be waived during construction, that tenants be allowed to deny workers entrance to their apartments and that damages of more than $100 million be paid for ill effects on the health and well-being of residents.

The tenants say they are depositing their rent monies into an escrow account instead of turning them over to the owner of the building until the matter is settled. Because rents are staggered, they say, the full effect of their strike--which has been in effect since June 1--will not be felt until the end of the month.

The residents' anger turned into alarm after a private laboratory they had contracted reported asbestos contents of 3% to 6% in portions of apartment ceilings that had been drilled or cut into. Subsequent testing ordered by the owners indicated asbestos contents of 5%, well in excess of the 1% maximum allowed by the state before special handling is required.

Linked to Fatal Illnesses

According to the tenants and the AQMD, that special handling--which includes wetting the material before removal, double bagging it to prevent contaminating spills and disposing of it only at designated hazardous waste sites--never took place at the International Towers. "They just dumped some of it into dumpsters," said Ron Ketcham, an AQMD spokesman. The subsequent citation, he said, could result in fines up to $10,000 for each day that the violations occurred.

As long as the material is left intact, medical experts say, it is relatively harmless. But when disturbed by destruction or removal, tiny asbestos fibers become airborne and can be inhaled with devastating results. Medical experts generally agree that exposure to asbestos can cause fatal respiratory ailments ranging from asbestosis, chronic lung disease usually affecting long-term asbestos workers, to mesothelioma, a malignant tumor in the lining of the lung that grows at the rate of a pregnancy and kills within a year.

While some experts believe that even a single fiber could cause cancer, little data exists on the effects of short-term non-occupational exposure. "The problem is that we won't know for 30 or 40 years," said Dr. Kaye H. Kilburn, a professor at USC Medical School who specializes in occupational and environmental diseases.

A 1981 study of workers at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, he said, showed that 11% of their wives--who themselves had experienced no occupational exposure--developed asbestosis. And studies conducted in the 1940s and '50s indicated increased cancer in people who had worked with asbestos for as short a period as a month.

'Probably Some Risk'

"One would have to say that . . . there is probably some risk," Kilburn said of short-term exposure such as that alleged at the International Towers. "But putting numbers on it is extremely difficult."

Tenants say they are not sure how much of the lethal carcinogen may have been released into the air of their apartments during the more than four months that the ceilings were being worked on. One air sample, they say, indicated an asbestos content of .032 fibers per cubic centimeter, well below the .2 fibers per cubic centimeter currently proposed by the federal government as an allowable level for workers, but more than three times the .01 allowed in schools.

More recent tests indicated a range of 2.8-million to 76-million fibers per square foot on several carpet and floor samples, asbestos that tenants fear could become airborne during such routine activities as vacuuming or sweeping. Especially alarming, they say, is the fact that the building is a popular viewing spot for such events as the Long Beach Grand Prix, which earlier this year attracted an estimated 2,000 to the International Towers during a period when work on the asbestos-laden ceiling was in full swing.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it is looking into the matter to determine whether workers at the site may have been exposed.

D.A. Investigating

The district attorney's office says it is investigating the situation to see whether any crimes have been committed.

Dr. Rugmani Shah, director of the Long Beach Health Department, said she had been told that all asbestos-related work at the Towers had ceased as of May 5. "Our indication is that there was not a significant danger to residents," Shah said.

Not all of the tenants accept that assessment. Between meeting with their lawyers, calling governmental agencies and complaining to building managers, some say, they are seriously worried not only about the loss of their pool, but about the possible ultimate loss of their lives.

"I don't even let my children or grandchildren visit me," said Dottie Parks, a medical secretary who lives on the 16th floor. "They have their whole lifetimes ahead of them."

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