A heavy padlock, a chain-link fence and green construction mesh separate long-time Santa Monica resident Gert Basson from his most treasured belongings.
The award-winning feature filmmaker doesn’t have the key to his screenplays or photographs or notes vital to his work. His landlord keeps his assets locked away in storage because of asbestos contamination inside the apartment Basson rented for 20 years at 1242 10th Street. At this point, getting to his things will involve untangling a complicated dispute between himself and the new owners of the Tenth Street Promenade. While he continues to pay rent, a relocation order from the City has Basson moving from room to room. Basson is receiving relocation fees while he his kept out of his apartment, although there is disagreement over whether those checks are being paid on time.
“As a photographer, I have boxes full of prints and negatives that can never be replaced,” Basson said of his items locked away from his access. “As a writer, I have pages written out in longhand. It’s a life’s work that I’ve done.”
For decades, the 1950’s era buildings at 1238 and 1242 10th Street remained quiet. Tenants benefited from rent control and many stayed for decades. When a major Santa Monica developer purchased the building in 2015, everything began to change.
When extensive remodeling began, the contractor, WDR Contracting, filed permits with the South Coast Air Quality Management District verifying the existence of asbestos in the acoustic ceilings, transite pipes, vinyl flooring and debris. Because asbestos is a known carcinogen, there are strict local and federal requirements involving construction on older buildings. While WDR Contracting is licensed to perform asbestos abatement, Basson began expressing concerns about their tactics when he came home from a trip to South Africa and says he saw debris dust floating through the air and into open apartment windows. Dust is the most dangerous form of asbestos because it can be inhaled into the lungs and cause serious damage or even cancer over time.
Three separate tests for asbestos appear to confirm Basson’s suspicions: a test in August from the SCAQMD showing asbestos inside one of the units under construction, tests by a certified environmental consultant showing asbestos inside several occupied units and a test funded by the City that showed asbestos in three units that were supposedly cleaned after earlier positive tests.
But the building’s new owner is shedding doubt on those tests, even going so far as to accuse tenants of planting the asbestos.
“One of the tenants at the property is extremely uncooperative and has done everything possible to cause problems, including theft of debris material and we believe a tenant planted asbestos in his unit,” spokesperson Eric Rose wrote in an email to the Daily Press.
A company linked to Santa Monica’s biggest developer, Neil Shekhter, 1238th 10th Street, LLC, owns the buildings. The deed to the property is signed by Shekhter himself and lists his NMS office as a return address. The Santa Monica City Council has promised to scrutinize Shekhter’s dealings in the City after a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge found he submitted forged documents to the court. Shekhter’s attorneys are in the process of appealing the ruling.
It is true that Basson has had a contentious relationship with his new landlord since he began raising concerns about the asbestos more than six months ago. He and another tenant have filed a Landlord Harassment Petition with the City. Basson claims ownership has threatened to “Ellis” the building while offering him ever increasing buy-outs to leave his rent-controlled home of 20 years. He also expressed concern over the security cameras that point at the building’s inner courtyard, reminding the few who have resisted buyouts they are being watched.
Eric Rose, who represents both NMS and the LLC that owns the Tenth Street Promenade, says they take safety seriously.
“1238th 10th Street, LLC has fully complied with the law regarding asbestos abatement, and 1238 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 in a statement to the Daily Press.
Yet Basson still cannot return home until his apartment is thoroughly cleaned. Normally, asbestos contamination after construction would trigger what’s called a Procedure 5 Plan to clean up the units. On Sept. 23, an independent inspector with GW Environmental Consulting Company submitted a report to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) detailing asbestos in air samples and settled dust inside several Tenth Street Promenade apartments. The expert, Greg Whitney, recommended extensive cleaning of Basson’s unit and several of his neighbors’ by certified professionals. However, the SCAQMD rejected the report, saying the samples did not meet their standards.
The SCAQMD also requires the tenants to sign a waiver allowing their items to be destroyed if they cannot be cleaned of the contamination. The letter sent to Basson by his property manager went a step further, releasing the building owner and the SCAQMD from any future liability concerning the asbestos. So far, Basson refused to sign.
Without a Procedure 5 Plan, it’s not clear how Basson will get his things back or when he can return home. He has reached out every agency he can think of and the City for help, so far no resolution can be reached.
“I’m in limbo,” Basson said.
“I put a value on my time and the trauma that they’ve put me through. I’m not going to waive it away.”