Photo by Daniel Farr

In December 2016 Anastasia Foster was completing her regular rounds of food delivery as a Meals on Wheels volunteer, but when she arrived at 220 San Vicente Boulevard her longtime client Suzette Glickman was nowhere to be found.

Glickman was a rent controlled tenant in her eighties, who had lived in the building for 38 years. She was a partial amputee and had multiple disabilities that prevented her from leaving her unit, so her absence caused Foster immediate alarm.

After contacting the building manager Foster eventually found Glickman in a state of utter distress. She had been left in an empty unit for hours with no water, no food, no electricity, no way to lift herself off of the overstuffed loveseat she was placed on and no idea when anyone was coming to get her.

The property management company had moved her in order to complete an unnecessary cosmetic upgrade in the hallway outside her unit and only provided notice the night before. At the time Foster was horrified, but unaware this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the abuse alleged by tenants at 220 San Vicente.

Five years later, Foster was no longer volunteering at 220 San Vicente, because she was dealing with the building as a Commissioner on the Rent Control Board, where it was the subject of the largest consolidated case in the agency’s history. The case concluded on Sept. 9 with Foster and her fellow commissioners authorizing a collective total of $642,645 in rent reductions to tenants in 17 units for damages suffered during over half a decade of construction.

“We have had other cases before this group, before this commission, similar in tone, similar in content, similar in nature, but never even quite to this unbelievably high threshold of pain — physical pain, emotional pain, mental pain — that people were paying to endure,” said Foster.

Tenants’ woes began in June 2015, when Brad Korzen purchased the building under San Vicente Tower SPE, LLC. Korzen is the CEO of the Kor Group, which lists 220 San Vicente as part of its portfolio in addition to several other luxury residential and hotel properties, including the Downtown Santa Monica Proper Hotel.

According to a report prepared by the case’s hearing officer Tracy Mattie-Daub, shortly after purchasing the property, the owner began making “sweeping changes to the look and feel of the space by embarking on an overhaul of the entire property.”

Over the next six years, tenants dealt with a seemingly never-ending series of inconveniences, loss of amenities, disturbances, dangers and delays.

From Nov. 4, 2015 to May 17, 2018 alone there were at least 48 water shutoffs. Elevator repairs initially estimated to take six weeks took 61. A two-month exterior painting project took almost six months.

Petitioners testified that jackhammering of concrete created deafening noise levels. One resident, Ted Chan, was subjected to days of hearing two metal railings being sliced into pieces directly outside his unit as part of a balcony railing replacement project.

“We are entitled to a recognition when there is so much noise that people cannot work at home, cannot talk on the phone, they cannot talk in person, they cannot do video conferencing, when water is shut off that people can’t use their toilets, people can’t wash their hands, people can’t shower,” said Chan during a Sept. 9 Rent Control Board meeting.

While the 1972 building was in need of repair, Mattie-Daub concluded that most of the renovations constituted unnecessary upgrades.

“There was no evidence presented to establish that demolition, extensive remodeling, and complete replacement of materials within renovated units were necessary to maintain or re-rent the units,” wrote Mattie-Daub. “The new and upgraded features were chosen to comport with the owner’s plans to give the property a modern, upscale appearance and feel, with the unstated goal of offering the renovated units at much higher rents.”

The building’s website currently advertises recently renovated units complete with “new hardwood flooring, updated oak cabinetry and sophisticated quartz bathroom countertops” and entreats potential tenants to “come live in luxury at San Vicente Tower.”

To facilitate the remodeling of vacant units and the installation of washers and dryers, existing tenants were repeatedly made to leave their units for several hours at a time.

During the construction process tenants also periodically lost access to their amenities including the pool, parking spaces, elevators and the laundry room.

When renovations of these amenities were deemed necessary, tenants were not entitled to rent reductions, but they did receive several reductions accounting for instances when construction was carried out in an unreasonable manner or took an unreasonably long time to complete.

Some tenants were relocated to temporary units for several months to allow for repairs to their existing units.

Tenant Bill Davids was displaced for six months and tenant Paula Wylot for eight months. Wylot was granted a rent reduction on the basis that she was paying the same rent to live in an inferior unit and Davids received a reduction for an unreasonable length of construction and damage done to his belongings by the construction workers.

The construction project also raised health and safety concerns.

The owner voluntarily chose to remove existing popcorn ceilings, a process that exposes asbestos. Although tenants were entitled to information on asbestos testing results, the owner declined to provide them. Additionally, on multiple occasions construction investigators reported failure to mitigate dust and inadequate protection from airborne contaminants.

“It is a combination and an assault on the senses of vibration, noise, dust, lack of an elevator, lack of a parking space, laundry stopped, power on power off, electricity on electricity off, water on water off,” said Foster, summarizing tenants’ plight. “It is a sustained assault on a person’s well-being and on their right to quiet enjoyment.”

The petition process began in March 2018 and involved 22 hearings, over 250 exhibits and an appeals process. Tenants who made it through the lengthy proceedings were rewarded with an average of 20 to 24 months of free rent.

Six households who initially filed petitions decided to leave the building before their case was concluded. Foster’s former Meals on Wheels client passed away before receiving any relief.

Renovation efforts are still underway at 220 San Vicente as is a pervasive atmosphere of fear among the long-term tenants, many of whom would not be able to afford market-rate housing in Santa Monica were they to lose their units.

“If you’re a long-term tenant in Santa Monica no one will address the consequences of ignoring buyout offers,” said 31 year tenant Bill Davids. “You’re supposed to be very careful about what you say to any management of any building that is going through renovation, because there is a feeling that they have the upper hand.”

Davids claims that he continues to suffer daily as a consequence of the building renovations, during which eight air conditioner condensers were relocated directly underneath his unit.

“When a good number of them are running together my apartment sounds like I’m living on top of the engine room of the Titanic,” said Davids. “I’m only getting four or five hours worth of sleep and it’s specifically due to the concentration of condensers underneath my apartment, so they can rent the renovated apartments for literally triple pay.”

While the rent reductions granted signify a victory for the tenants, the Rent Control Board is limited in its legal ability to offer relief. In the case of Davids’ condensers, the Board could not authorize any decrease as they are not part of ongoing construction.

Additionally, hearing officers cannot give reductions that total to more than 100 percent of a tenant’s rent. The hearing officer reported that she would have authorized much greater rent decreases to tenants at 220 San Vicente were it not for this constraint.

“The rent control law has some pretty robust solutions for tenants and landlords, but in some cases it can’t possibly go far enough,” said Foster. “Tenants in this city have every right to hire attorneys and seek justice in the court system.”

The owner of the property did not respond to a request for comment.

Clara@smdp.com