SANTA MONICA : Landmark Gets Rent Control Exemption


The ripples of the January earthquake have again hit residents of Santa Monica's Sea Castle apartments.

The city's Rent Control Board last week exempted the severely damaged landmark structure from rent control. That could mean market-level rents if the building at 1725 The Promenade is ever repaired.

The board adhered to a city rent control law that frees a damaged building from rent limits if the sum of rents at the market rate is lower than the repair costs.

"We had our staff experts run the numbers and it was just not economically feasible to enforce rent control on a building this damaged," said Lisa Monk Borrino, vice chairwoman of the rent board.

The board's commissioners say renovating the 178-unit building, which once housed a close-knit, diverse community of artists, the elderly and local celebrities, will cost an estimated $7.5 million.

And some housing experts doubt that increasing rents on the building's many one-bedroom units--$350 to $650 before the quake--will ever be enough to cover the rebuilding expense.

The building's owner, Robert Braun, intends to push ahead with renewal plans despite the cost and foreclosure proceedings by the building's bank, First Federal Bank of California, over a defaulted mortgage loan. Years of litigation between Braun and the bank could lie ahead.

"He's going to continue to make efforts to preserve the building," said Sherman Stacey, Braun's attorney. "He has applied for every possible state and federal grant for restoration. Preservation is the best alternative to demolition."

Many tenants, who in recent years have argued with Braun over rent increases, the installation of a sprinkler system and the building's general state of disrepair, remain unconvinced.

"I don't think Braun has any intent of rebuilding until he is completely free of any (restrictions)--he will just drag it out as long as possible," said Emily Aleyner, a 20-year resident of the oceanfront apartments.

After the quake, Santa Monica, though armed with an order from its nuisance abatement board, was unable to get Braun to shore up the structure. The city advanced $180,000 to strengthen the building, and is seeking reimbursement through a lien on the property.

Beginning last week, tenants were allowed into their apartments to retrieve their belongings, a process that will continue until Oct. 1, after which the building will be boarded up. Many were shocked at the damage done since the quake by birds, rodents and vandals.

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