The sound of jackhammers, saws and power tools may be familiar to thousands of rent-controlled apartment dwellers in Santa Monica. Decades-long restricted rents anchor them in their dingy apartments as neighbors move out and building owners gut units to make way for new arrivals willing shell out top dollars to live blocks away from the beach.

But a major health concern makes the renovations at the newly christened Tenth Street Promenade more than just a nuisance. In February, contractors began scraping off the 1950’s era popcorn ceilings of eight empty units. The ceilings are known to contain asbestos. As more tenants took buyouts to leave the construction zone, their units were gutted as well. Of the twenty apartments at 1238 and 1242 10th Street, only six are still occupied. The vacant units have since been reduced to their wood-beamed bare bones. Tufts of insolation peak out of ceiling rafters and the thick orange cords of power tools snake across concrete floors. Security cameras point at common areas throughout the property with signs to remind those still paying rent that their new landlord is always watching.

When the buildings were sold in the summer of 2015 for $8 million dollars to Santa Monica’s largest developer, perhaps the writing was on the wall for tenants like Gert Basson who has lived in his one-bedroom apartment for twenty years. The low rent allows him to live in Santa Monica and focus on making independent feature films. For his neighbor, Rick Straum, stable rent allowed him to start his own tech company. Neither will be able to stay in the city if they lose their homes.

“I always need to be close to the sea,” Basson said as he looked back at the decision to settle into the building on 10th Street between Wilshire Boulevard and Arizona Avenue. “I’ve just seen Santa Monica change so drastically; especially the makeup of the population. There’s just no more place for the creative types.”

The twin buildings at 1238 and 1242 10th Street are now owned by a partnership: 1238 10th Street, LLC. The signature on the deed is that of Neil Shekhter, the CEO of NMS Properties, Inc, a major property manager and developer in Santa Monica. Eric Rose, a spokesman NMS Properties said that they are not the owner or property manager, however, an official document filed to the Air Quality Management District regarding the asbestos abatement was printed on NMS stationary and written by their senior development associate.

The Santa Monica City Council has promised greater scrutiny of Shekhter’s dealings after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge found he lied and submitted forged documents to the court as part of an ongoing civil suit. Fall out from the lawsuit continues: the judge threw out the case and removed nine properties from Shekhter’s control. His attorneys have appealed the decision.

But some tenants at the Tenth Street Promenade say the city ignored their complaints over their new owner for the better part of a year, and now worry their decision resist buyouts has resulted in serious damage to their health.

Permits filed by WDR Contracting to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) verified the presence of asbestos in the acoustic ceilings, transite pipes, vinyl flooring, and debris from the construction. The EPA and OSHA both have strict federal guidelines for asbestos abatement during construction because asbestos is a known carcinogen. Exposure to asbestos particles in the air can result in a deadly list of ailments: asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

While WDR Contracting is licensed to perform asbestos abatement, something apparently went wrong. Basson describes clouds of dust billowing into nearby open windows. When he turned to the SCAQMD for oversight and help, he says inspectors at first turned a blind eye to the dust. Tenants did not receive a formal notice the debris-contained asbestos until six months into construction. Three weeks after that, samples taken by SCAQMD inspectors found asbestos particles on the window sill of one of the gutted units.

“There shouldn’t be any asbestos if a proper abatement has taken place,” said SCAQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. “The procedures laid out in our regulations are very strict as far as not allowing asbestos in the unit to get outside the unit.”

In September, Basson took the advice of an SCAQMD inspector and hired his own certified environmental consultant to take samples from the dust in his unit; he considers their report the smoking gun.

A Sep. 1 report signed by Greg Whitney found chrysotile asbestos in the settled dust inside Basson’s living room and dining area. He recommended closing off the apartment unit to anyone besides certified professionals wearing protective equipment. He said the residence should be sealed using “robust polyethylene sheeting and duct tape.”

The construction company in charge of the remodeling project, MAS Construction, also paid Whitney to investigate asbestos in other the units. He found asbestos in six different apartments, some of which were occupied by remaining tenants.

Two weeks later, the city of Santa Monica ordered the buildings management to relocate the tenants. Basson has been living in a hotel room ever since.

In an email to the Daily Press, Rose said “making sure the residents have a safe place to call home is a responsibility 1238 10th Street, LLC takes seriously.”

“1238th 10th Street, LLC does not believe that any tenant will have potential health effects since they have taken the proper precautions to ensure the containment of asbestos at all times,” Rose said.

It’s unclear what happens next. In tomorrow’s Daily Press, read why Basson is now living in limbo: paying rent on his apartment while uncertain whether it will ever receive the thorough cleaning he demands.

kate@www.smdp.com