Tenants Cry, Supes Pound Chest

Mass Evictions Still Loom for I.V. Renters

by Nick Welsh

There was much hand-wringing and chest-thumping by the Santa Barbara County Supervisors early Tuesday morning, but at the end of the day, they concluded they lacked the legal authority to provide the relief sought by the 55 low-income, Spanish-speaking families now being evicted from the Cedarwood Apartments in Isla Vista. The new owner, Conquest Student Housing, has made it clear it intends to replace the families with student renters. Tenants were given their 30-day notices about 40 days ago; thus far, however, the new owners have not taken the necessary next steps to initiate eviction proceedings.

Cedarwood tenants and social justice advocates associated with PUEBLO — 22 in all — beseeched the supervisors to file legal motions on their behalf on the grounds the evictions were illegal because they targeted families for removal. (In California, it’s against the law for landlords to discriminate against people with children.) Such an action, they argued, would buy tenants — some of whom had been living at Cedarwood for 14 years — time to find new quarters and argue their case in court. “We’re the people who work in the restaurants where the students eat,” said tenant Maria Calzado. “We’re the ones who clean the bathrooms they use. We’re the ones who clean their tables. We are not extra; we’re part of the community.” Tenant Guadalupe Macias was so overcome with emotion that she could not speak at all.

Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone — who represents Isla Vista — came under fire from some speakers who all but accused him of doing too little. “Will you stand with the families or will you stand with the people evicting them?” demanded UCSB student Joel Rodriguez-Flores, who served as translator for many of the tenants who addressed the board. Firestone noted with exasperation his inability to determine the actual identities of the new owners, and mentioned — with almost equal exasperation — that none of the tenants had taken advantage of an offer tendered by the new owners’ attorney to give some tenants extra time based on need.

Supervisor Salud Carbajal — who praised Firestone for working tirelessly behind the scenes — seemed especially eager that the county do all it could for the families. “If 55 families were displaced by a natural disaster, we’d be jumping through hoops,” he said. Equally troubled was Supervisor Joe Centeno, who argued the issue was not so much one of laws but of morals. Normally a staunch defender of property rights, Centeno asked, “Is it really right to take poor people who can’t afford to hire their own attorney and do a mass eviction on them?” Supervisor Joni Gray called the evictions “a travesty” and “a horrible thing,” but also took the occasion to castigate slow-growthers and no-growthers in the Goleta Valley. “Their vision of their community is no more housing,” she said.

Despite the supervisors’ strongly expressed feelings, County Counsel Shane Stark was equally strong in his judgment that the supervisors lacked the legal standing to petition the courts for injunctive relief. If the supervisors thought the new owners were involved in unfair business practices or guilty of discrimination, he advised, they should work with the District Attorney to pursue the matter. But, he cautioned, discrimination could not be legally established until the current tenants had been evicted and replaced. An exasperated Supervisor Susan Rose responded, “Are you telling me that the threat of mass evictions doesn’t constitute an act of discrimination?”

Rose’s passion won applause from the crowd, but did not sway Stark. By the meeting’s end, Supervisor Carbajal could barely contain himself, saying it was “ridiculous, ludicrous, and shameful” that the property owners would not meet with county representatives. “I’m personally going to drive to Los Angeles to meet with whoever answers at Conquest Student Housing,” he vowed. If he does, perhaps his experience will be better than that of the team of 11 tenants and PUEBLO activists who tried the same journey last Saturday. Once there, they encountered someone they thought to be an owner in the Conquest Student Housing parking lot. They soon found themselves surrounded by 15 Los Angeles police officers, at which point the probable owner drove away.

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