Though it’s been a few years since Dario Pini was in the news for renting dirty and dilapidated housing to low-income residents and foreign students, his disgruntled tenants haven’t forgotten about him. Fielding recommendations from this group, Tenants Together – a statewide organization that fights for renters’ rights – just nominated Pini to its Landlord Hall of Shame.
A former special education teacher at Santa Barbara Junior High School, Pini is known for consistently racking up complaints against his dozens of properties throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, often neglecting basic upkeep and turning a blind eye to overcrowding. At one point he and his company, Dario Pini Investments, were targeted in a massive police investigation that ended in nearly 800 building code violations and a jail sentence. Pini famously chose to spend 30 days behind bars instead of going on house arrest in one of his rentals.
One of the largest property tax payers in Santa Barbara County, Pini – a millionaire many times over – has countered that he provides housing to people who’d find it difficult, if not impossible, to afford a place to live on the South Coast, and argues his management methods are more altruistic than malevolent.
Tenants Together Program Coordinator Gabe Treves said the Hall of Shame was launched just over a year ago and is now entering its second cycle. During the first round East Palo Alto landlord David Taran – known for orchestrating a complicated rent-hike scheme that ended with 1,500 people losing their homes – and LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling – who settled with the Department of Justice in the largest ever housing discrimination case – were inducted.
Tenants Together, explained Treves, takes recommendations from renters throughout the state of who should be nominated, and then conducts its own research to narrow down the field. Once six are chosen (Pini is the first in this cycle), hundreds of Tenants Together members vote for the final inductees.
Treves said many angry renters have called and emailed his organization about Pini, complaining that the mega-landlord would rather pay fines once in a while than bring his properties up to par. “For him, it’s the cost of doing business,” said Treves. “Through the Landlord Hall of Shame,” he went on, “we hope to shine a public spotlight on this bad apple and deter future poor behavior.”
Though Pini didn’t respond to requests for comment, Ken Sterling of Valiant Group spoke for him. Valiant Group, explained Sterling, is “a boutique real estate management firm [working] primarily with affluent families to manage their real estate portfolios.” The company helps Pini buy, sell, and manage his properties.
Dismissing Treves and the Wall of Shame for a perceived lack of credibility, Sterling said Pini’s past troubles are old news and not worth rehashing. Treves, said Sterling, fails to mention that Pini and Valiant Group “provide housing to hundreds of people who would otherwise be homeless” and that they spend more per unit on repairs and maintenance than any other property owner in Santa Barbara County. Sterling claimed they often waive late fees and work out payment plans with around 30 families every month.
“Mr. Pini brings food to families who are destitute on a daily basis,” Sterling continued. “There are many city officials and legal aid staff members who get along with Mr. Pini very well. Those people understand Mr. Pini provides housing to families that nobody else wants to rent to and they acknowledge Mr. Pini works very hard on a daily basis to maintain his properties.”