Ayde Gonzalez, the new Neighborhood Preservation Coordinator for the City of Santa Monica

 

To some, preserving a neighborhood might mean buildings. To others, it’s the trees. To Ayde Gonzalez, the new Neighborhood Preservation Coordinator for the City of Santa Monica, it’s the people.

“The goal of the role is really to keep Santa Monicans housed,” Gonzalez said in an interview at City Hall, “and right now I’m focusing on tenant protection programs that are in place.”

It’s a broad job with the possibility of big impact: about 70 percent of the City’s population rents. Right now, the City has no idea how many tenants are considering leaving their buildings – rent controlled or otherwise – because of issues with their landlord.

After just three weeks on the job, Gonzalez is still sifting through a complicated web of rules, tenant protections and regulations that spans at least five departments in the City. As she tries to understand what exactly she can do to help renters who feel like they’re being forced from their homes because of construction or poor management, she’s realizing the complicated picture they face.

“Part of my role is to help people by connecting the dots ahead of time so that they’re not spending their time and getting frustrated trying to figure out who to talk to,” Ayde said.

A Santa Monica native, Gonzalez has worked with tenants to stay here for the past 20 years. For the last ten, she worked as director of resident services at Community Corp, a non-profit affordable housing provider.

When Gonzalez applied for this job, she tried to look for examples from other cities to find out what they’re doing to maintain diversity in their neighborhoods despite escalating rents and a hot real estate market. She realized that the job doesn’t really exist anywhere else.

Santa Monica Public Information Officer Constance Farrell says she’s not aware of any other city with a person whose sole job is to oversee tenant protections either. It’s usually a mix of Code Enforcement, Building and Safety, the Rent Control Board, Housing and Human Services and the City Attorney’s Office.

“We, as a City, want to be focused on creating efficiencies,” Farrell said of the City Manager’s decision to create the new position.

It’s not just inefficiencies that plague tenants navigating Santa Monica’s bureaucracy. It is also difficult for the City to grasp the full scale of construction work going on at any given property because a landlord or owner planning a massive remodeling project files permits through several different agencies unit by unit.

“We don’t get the full picture of what’s happening in the entire building,” Gonzalez said, “so that’s something we’re looking at as well. We might have multiple means and methods plans in the entire building.”

To tenants like Gert Basson at the Tenth Street Promenade, remodeling is a major source of disruption. While his rent-controlled apartment remains mostly untouched, his 1950’s era building is a constant construction zone. Of twenty apartments at 1238 and 1242 10th Street, only five are still occupied as tenants take buy-outs and flee the noise. As tenants leave, construction moves into those newly empty units and workers rip out ceilings, tear up floors and break down walls.

Basson knows if he leaves to escape the noise and dust, he will no longer be able to afford to live in his city of twenty years.

“I will not be surprised if soon enough I will be the only person living there,” Basson said.

Right now he’s hopping from place to place while his landlord pays him relocation fees because of asbestos dust found in his unit after a flurry of construction. Asbestos dust is a known carcinogen and construction projects that involve old buildings must follow strict federal rules to avoid contamination. In a few weeks, Basson has a rent reduction hearing with the Rent Control Board, another milestone in a process to get help that has taken nearly a year at this point.

Basson hopes Gonzalez will also focus on developing repercussions for bad actors who displace tenants. He says the bureaucracy has a tendency to deflect issues as ‘someone else’s job.’

“That’s one way of getting rid of the problem. You’ll go through a round with several different departments and end up right where you started.”

What makes Basson’s case more frustrating is that the City Council has promised greater scrutiny of the man who owns the Tenth Street Promenade. The deed to the property is signed by Neil Shekhter and lists his NMS office as a return address. Back in December, the City Council directed staff to scrutinize Shekhter’s contracts in the City after a judge found he committed perjury and submitted fraudulent business contracts in federal court. Shekhter’s attorneys have appealed the judge’s ruling.

Gonzalez is sympathetic to Basson’s plight and hopes she’ll be able to avoid similar issues in the future. With the City’s new efforts to get all buildings up to current earthquake standards, she knows there is about to be a massive wave of construction on apartment buildings.

She hopes with a little effort, renters will have more stability.

“The market is so strong here. There’s a lot of pressure on tenants,” Gonzales said. “Once they move out we do lose some of our diversity here and I would hate to see that happen.”

kate@www.smdp.com