Tenants have nowhere to turnWe hope the ordeal suffered by a dozen or more residents whose apartments at the Americana complex were contaminated by asbestos will stir local lawmakers to protect tenants should similar problems come up in the future.
What happened in this case shouldn't happen to anyone, but if it does, state, county or city officials must be empowered to step in and oversee the cleanup and compensation to the tenants.
At the Americana — which is managed by Prometheus, a company that oversees about 10,000 apartment units in the area — the nightmare began when workers embarked on an early-October roof-replacement project in the complex at 707 Continental Circle. Company officials say the roofing contractor did not know asbestos was present in the apartments, although tenants say their leases actually acknowledged that the material was present.
Whether the contractor knew or not, there is no dispute that asbestos particles were dislodged during the roofing replacement and floated into many top-floor apartments. Then, when a tenant demanded that units be tested for asbestos, the contractor halted work on the project, leaving some renters' apartments and belongings exposed to the elements.
As luck would have it, a torrential rainstorm hit Mountain View that weekend, forcing many tenants to evacuate the building. Many have since moved out of the building permanently, but are fighting to be compensated for moving expenses. For others still intending to return, Prometheus found temporary quarters while the asbestos is cleared away and the roof replaced.
Many tenants are outraged at the way they have been treated by the company, but in searching for redress, have found that no state, county or city agency has jurisdiction over this type of asbestos incident. One resident told the Voice that she had called dozens of agencies that might be able to hold the apartment owners responsible for the damages, from the Governor's Office to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Every single person told us to get a lawyer — we are in no one's jurisdiction," she said.
Even the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is the most likely agency to deal with the problem, said there would likely be no consequences for the Americana's owners and apartment managers. Since the roofing workers were not trying to remove the asbestos, and accidentally shook it loose, the company would not be liable for damages, a spokeswoman said.
All of this points to a hole in the law as gaping as the Americana's roof. Unsuspecting tenants leased their apartments believing they had a right to be safe from toxic or dangerous substances. They also assumed their apartments would not be exposed to inclement weather. And if the people they pay rent to failed in this regard, there should be some form of reasonable compensation.
But it seems the renters were wrong to think they had these legal rights.
If ever a situation cried out for State Sen. Joe Simitian's "There Oughta Be a Law" contest, this is it. Prometheus apparently has encountered similar situations, in particular an asbestos problem at a Cupertino apartment complex in 2000.
If nothing else, this large management firm should do everything possible to resettle the tenants and pay them generous damage settlements. It is the only fair thing to do at this point.