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Asbestos in Apartment Fuels Dispute : Health: Landlord tries to evict woman, saying she is blocking repairs. The tenant calls the move retaliatory.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A fight between a self-described “tenant from hell” and her landlord over storm damage to a Ventura apartment has escalated with the discovery of potentially dangerous asbestos in the apartment.

Now, management is seeking to evict Kristy Johnson, accusing the 48-year-old paralegal of obstructing efforts to repair the damage.

For her part, Johnson says she is defending herself from the scare tactics of a landlord who she contends is trying to retaliate against a tenacious tenant.

Both sides admit that they have been stymied at times by a patchwork of laws that govern the presence of asbestos in apartment buildings. County air pollution officials, who confess to being confused by the rules for asbestos removal, are revising their own guidelines.

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The dispute touches on the broader issue of the risk faced by the occupants of homes and apartments constructed before 1978, when federal guidelines banned the use of asbestos materials by builders.

Though age itself does not determine whether asbestos was used in the construction of a residence, state figures indicate that two-thirds of Ventura County’s 231,715 dwelling units were built before federal asbestos guidelines went into effect.

And “any building constructed prior to 1978 normally will contain asbestos in the cottage-cheese ceiling” if such acoustical ceiling material is present, said Allen Danzig of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

The feud between Johnson and the managers of her Ventura apartment started with a leaky roof.

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Johnson, who works for a Camarillo law office, had been happy to find a two-bedroom apartment in July, 1990, that she and her 23-year-old son, Michael, could afford.

Built in 1965, the 12-unit Driftwood Apartments on Woodland Street is owned by a Camarillo woman and has been managed for years by William R. Derrick & Associates of Oxnard. A spokeswoman for Derrick & Associates declined to comment on the events because of pending court action.

When a heavy rain fell the last day of February, a leak developed in the ceiling of Johnson’s second-floor apartment.

Eventually, according to a chronology of events compiled by Johnson, a series of handymen were sent to the apartment to inspect the ceiling and several electrical problems, including a broken heater and oven.

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An electrician sent by the managers in late April refused to work on the heater, located above the ceiling, because of his suspicion that the ceiling’s acoustical coating contained asbestos, Johnson said.

By that time, chunks of ceiling material had fallen, dried and crumbled to dust. Johnson said she vacuumed and mopped the debris as it fell.

Hoping to make cosmetic repairs to the ceiling herself, Johnson called a number of contractors to evaluate the job. Each declined to even look at the ceiling, citing the likelihood that asbestos was present because of the age of the building, Johnson said.

Fed up, Johnson hired a consultant to test the material from the ceiling and learned that it contained 1% to 3% asbestos, and that the dried, or “friable,” asbestos was considered highly dangerous. She was advised not to sweep or mop up the debris.

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In its fine, powdery stage, asbestos fibers can cause a wide range of crippling and often fatal lung diseases. Symptoms often do not show up for 15 years or more. But experts also point out that if asbestos remains undisturbed, little risk exists.

Johnson sent copies of the test results to the owner and management company but received no acknowledgement, she said.

The already rocky relationship between Johnson and her landlord deteriorated further when Johnson insisted on 24-hour written notices before allowing workmen to enter the apartment.

On July 10, Johnson’s attorney, Edward J. Lacey of Ventura, asked the apartment managers to furnish Johnson temporary quarters while they fixed the leaky ceiling.

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Nine days later, Johnson was served with an eviction order requiring her to move within 30 days. Listed as the reason was Johnson’s refusal to allow workmen into her apartment. Johnson says she only refused repairs that weren’t scheduled 24 hours in advance.

Johnson has refused to move and a hearing on the eviction is set for Sept. 27.

The legal action was not a surprise to Johnson, who cheerfully admitted to becoming “the tenant from hell.” Because of her legal training, she said, she will not flinch.

Karen Kurta, the attorney representing Derrick & Associates, declined to comment directly on the pending eviction hearing.

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Left unresolved is whether Johnson’s landlord and others are obliged to inform their tenants about the presence of asbestos.

California’s Proposition 65, which requires employers who use toxic substances to notify the public, also applies to apartment owners who know that friable asbestos is present, said Peter A. Baldridge, the chief counsel of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

But the law only applies to apartment owners and property management firms with at least 10 employees, opening the possibility that an owner could dodge the regulation by hiring a smaller management firm, Baldridge said. Kurta said she does not know how many employees Derrick & Associates has.

e federal Toxic Substances Control Act and state health laws also require the owners of pre-1979 apartments with at least 10 units to inform new tenants of the presence of any asbestos, according to a spokeswoman for the California Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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By 1977, Ventura County planners say, there were 21,582 apartments in buildings with at least five units within the county. County officials did not know how many apartments were in larger buildings and subject to notification laws.

Kurta said Derrick managers had obeyed all the asbestos-related regulations that they were aware of, but conceded that the overlapping rules made it difficult to find out which should apply.

Danzig conceded that the Air Pollution Control District had erroneously told Derrick officials that they did not need a licensed asbestos contractor to repair Johnson’s ceiling. Now, he said, the district is moving to draw up stricter guidelines. He expects the tougher rules to go to the Board of Supervisors by December.

Notification rules also apply to real estate brokers who sell a home that contains asbestos, said George Kite, president-elect of the Ventura Board of Realtors.

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At Johnson’s apartment building, several neighbors said they were unaware of the possible presence of asbestos in their apartments. All were reluctant to comment on the dispute between Johnson and the landlord.

One neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she worried about the cracks in her ceiling after learning about asbestos. Her 15-month-old daughter has been sneezing and has a rash that her physician cannot identify, she said.

Another woman on a visit to the laundry room said she had found the management responsive during the five months that she has lived in the apartments. “As far as I know, management has done what they can,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “I’m sure they won’t let the people down.”

FYI

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Those who are concerned about asbestos or want to know whether it is present in their residences can obtain a list of licensed asbestos consultants by calling the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District at 645-1400. Additional information on asbestos can be obtained by calling the Asbestos Hot Line, (916) 322-6036, or the Asbestos Information Assn., (703) 979-1150.


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