<strong>Renters' Rights:</strong> Estela Jaimes (with her daughter) was evicted from her apartment last year so her landlord can make improvements and increase the rent. Activists like Belen Seara (right) say stronger protections are needed.
Paul Wellman

In a rare display of political pulchritude, a group of tenants’ rights advocates gathered outside the County Administration Building early Tuesday afternoon demanding that supervisors stiffen the rules governing how much relocation assistance landlords have to provide displaced renters and under what circumstances.

Under the county’s eight-year-old ordinance, landlords must provide relocation assistance only when their tenants are forced out because their homes have been deemed uninhabitable. Advocates with the Rental Housing Roundtable-a coalition of tenants’ rights supporters-argued the ordinance should be expanded to include renters forced to seek new accommodations because of condo conversion, demolition, renovations, and rezoning. When families are evicted, they must often double up elsewhere, said Sharon Rose of Mobile Home Owners Coalition. “And that’s really hard on the children,” she said.

By comparison, the City of Santa Barbara has an ordinance requiring landlords to pay up to $5,000 to tenants forced to relocate because of condo conversions or habitability problems. City housing officials said they did not know how many times that ordinance has been used.

Organizers acknowledge the statistical record is sketchy but say four mass evictions since 2002 have displaced no less than 300 families. In these instances, the tenants were evicted to allow for renovations and improvements that enabled the landlords to charge substantially higher rents. In one high-profile 2006 case, Isla Vista families occupying 50 units were evicted to make way for luxury student rentals. Almost always, the affected households are low-income, Latino, and families.

Belen Seara, coalition spokesperson, said landlords should give tenants enough money to cover the first month’s rent plus a security deposit. County supervisors Salud Carbajal and Doreen Farr have recommended the issue be referred to the county’s Housing director John McInnes for further study.

“You pass an ordinance, but if there’s no oversight and follow up, it falls through the cracks,” Carbajal said.

Clouding the debate is the absence of reliable statistical information. Under the existing ordinance, the landlords are supposed to notify county housing officials whenever they serve an unlawful detainer notice to evict tenants. Those records, charged Seara and Carbajal, have not been kept. “You pass an ordinance, but if there’s no oversight and follow up, it falls through the cracks,” Carbajal said. McInnes, however, claimed otherwise, stating that some landlords have complied with the law. Without such information, argued Leon Lunt of the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, “There’s no basis to suggest there’s even a problem.” Lunt suggested 5 to 8 percent of South Coast rentals are currently vacant. Landlords are so desperate for tenants, he said, they’re offering one-month rent free to renters willing to sign a year-long lease.

“There may be rental units on the market,” countered Seara, “but they’re not affordable. And that’s a big difference.” She cited the situation of Estela Jaimes-on hand with her two-year old daughter-whose family was one of 32 evicted from Modoc Road apartments last summer. With three kids and an injured husband, Jaimes said, she’s moved twice since being evicted. Even in today’s softer real estate market, she said, rents for comparable accommodations are $300-$500 higher than her Modoc Road home. To pay the first month’s rent and a security deposit, she was forced to take out a loan. Seara said Jaimes’ experience is hardly uncommon.

“It’s been a long time since I attended a gathering where so much hyperbole and exaggeration was presented as the truth,” claimed Isla Vista landlord Charles Eckert, who also conceded, “Even hyperbole and exaggeration usually contains some kernel of truth.” To the extent there’s a problem, he said, it was the fault of out-of-town real estate investors who haven’t been “housebroken” yet. Eckert cautioned that “too draconian” a solution might scare some landlords out of the rental market altogether or inhibit others from making needed repairs.

The supervisors took no action Tuesday out of deference to Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno, who could not be present. The matter will be formally debated in August.


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