Tenants Lost Gentrification Showdown

Council Approves Condos, Promises New Rental Protections

by Nick Welsh

Despite tearful entreaties by tenants to save their moderately priced homes from demolition at an older 10-unit apartment complex on north La Cumbre Road, members of the Santa Barbara City Council denied their appeal and approved plans — by a vote of 4-1 — to replace the apartments with eight new condominiums, which will sell from $700,000 to $850,000, plus one affordable unit priced at $216,000. Throughout the council’s three-hour deliberations, many of the tenants urgently addressed the councilmembers in Spanish, describing through an interpreter how many jobs they already work and the hardships they anticipate in finding new accommodations they can afford. “Please, don’t destroy the place we are living,” pleaded Fernando Guzman, who has lived with his wife and daughter in their La Cumbre apartment for the past 11 years. “Please save our building.”

Other tenants expressed fears that they’d have to leave Santa Barbara if they were forced to move. Despite the concern all councilmembers expressed at the imminent loss of affordable rental housing, four of the five present argued it would be unfair to break new policy ground on the backs of developers Richard and Ryan Richards, who have played by the rules and offered more than city guidelines require in the way of tenant relocation assistance and the provision of one affordable unit. Buttressing the council majority’s concern about fair play was a conviction that if they ruled in favor of the 30 tenants — as well as affordable housing advocate Mickey Flacks of SBCAN and PUEBLO — the developers would sue City Hall and almost certainly prevail.

Flacks cited chapter and verse from the city’s general plan and housing policies that definitively frown on replacing modestly priced rentals with more expensive condos. Councilmember Das Williams embraced this argument and came up with one of his own: He argued it was hypocritical and unfair to ask an unwilling public to accommodate the increased densities necessary to achieve affordable housing, while simultaneously allowing developers to tear down existing affordable rentals and replace them with upscale condos. While some councilmembers may have been sympathetic to Williams’s arguments, he was ultimately alone in his vote against the demolition.

The other councilmembers cited state law and court precedent that makes it illegal for municipalities to require landlords to stay in the rental property business against their will. The evening saw much hand-wringing about the glaring insufficiency of current city policies to stem the conversion of apartments to condos, and much talk of reforms to be enacted at a later date. In the meantime, however, Councilmember Grant House managed to secure an agreement from the developers to double the amount of relocation assistance they initially offered, increasing it from one-to-three months’ rent to two-to-six months’.

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