LONG BEACH — In the beginning it all seemed so desirable.
Life in a circular 31-story high-rise with a view from Newport Beach to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. A luxurious life style for rents averaging $1,000 a month that featured the use of a swimming pool, round-the-clock security and neighbors with high incomes. And a planned conversion project that would allow apartment renters to become condominium owners.
"It was just a super place to live," said Gene Wade, a mechanical engineer who has spent the last three years residing on the 16th floor of the International Towers near downtown Long Beach. Built in 1966, the building is a local landmark that tenants believe is one of the tallest high-rises on the Southern California coast. "It was probably the first time in my adult life that I really wanted to come home," Wade said.
Tenants Filed Lawsuit
That was before workers began tearing out asbestos-laden ceilings. And changing the plumbing. And painting the walls.
"They could not have infringed on anyone's rights any more if they had taken a bulldozer and knocked the place down," said Robert Speas, an attorney who has lived in the building for 1 1/2 years.
So 60 tenants got together and filed a lawsuit. They also notified the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which cited the owners of the 204-unit complex for allegedly removing toxic asbestos illegally and in a way that may have endangered residents' and visitors' lives. Several other local and state agencies say they are investigating the situation. And tenants have organized what they say may be the first of its kind: a luxury rent strike.
"We have the same rights as people in the barrios have," reasoned resident E. Scott Ellis, who, among other things, serves as board chairman for the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency that provides low-cost housing in Orange County.
Owners Consider Suit Frivolous
Richard Blaskey, an attorney representing Perini Land & Development Corp., the Delaware-based owner of the building, would not comment except to say that his clients consider the lawsuit "frivolous and without merit."
Bob Treese, a resident of seven years, says the disgruntled tenants represent only a small portion of the 120 units currently occupied. "They don't speak for me and they don't speak for lots of tenants," said Treese, owner of a marine hardware manufacturing company. "They are in here at a pretty cheap rate and they don't like the idea of having to buy. (The strike) is just an aggravation that will delay construction."
Those involved in it, however, say that their battle against the owners grew out of genuine frustration--not with the conversion itself, but with the manner in which the work was being completed.
Nobody was surprised by the conversion plans, they say. On the drawing boards since 1981, the work was finally begun in January of this year. Residents were given the option of moving out or remaining to eventually buy their units at a discount. Many remained. But despite assurances by the building's management that disruptions would be minimal, they say, the disruptions have endangered their health, invaded their privacy, undermined their peace of mind and generally diminished the value of the habitations for which they were paying.
"It was so bad (at one point) that you couldn't find the elevator for the dust," Speas said.
Added Ellis: "I would awaken at 7 a.m. and there would be a (worker's) face peering into the (balcony) window."
$100 Million Damages Asked
Among other things, the tenants' suit accuses the owners of failing to provide habitable premises by effectively eliminating the use of all common areas, including the swimming pool; forcing tenants to suffer plumbing problems and unannounced water shut-offs; allowing unlimited access to the extent that security is nonexistent; blocking stairwells and corridors with debris, and creating noxious and unpleasant odors by improperly storing various paints and thinners in living areas.
The suit asks that rents be waived during construction, that tenants be allowed to deny workers entrance to their apartments and that damages of more than $100 million be paid for ill effects on the health and well-being of residents.
The tenants say they are depositing their rent monies into an escrow account instead of turning them over to the owner of the building until the matter is settled. Because rents are staggered, they say, the full effect of their strike--which has been in effect since June 1--will not be felt until the end of the month.
The residents' anger turned into alarm after a private laboratory they had contracted reported asbestos contents of 3% to 6% in portions of apartment ceilings that had been drilled or cut into. Subsequent testing ordered by the owners indicated asbestos contents of 5%, well in excess of the 1% maximum allowed by the state before special handling is required.
Linked to Fatal Illnesses