After 37 families living in the Hillshore Gardens apartments on Modoc Road were handed 60-day eviction notices, almost exactly two years ago, the advocacy organization PUEBLO created a policy wing called the Rental Housing Roundtable.
The raison d’être for this group is to amend Chapter 44 of the County Code.
Chapter 44 was enacted in 2002 by Ordinance 4444, which stipulates that, when people are forced to vacate rental properties deemed by the county unsafe to occupy, landlords must provide relocation funds. Yet, according to the Rental Housing Roundtable, Chapter 44 does not offer adequate protection to tenants forced to leave their residences through no fault of their own. To date, nobody has been awarded relocation funds under Ordinance 44.
Mass evictions are fairly rare (there have been six since 2000) but Housing and Community Development (HCD) Director David Matson described them as “high trauma events.” Furthermore, there is an established pattern of landlords evicting low-income tenants and then filling their properties with SBCC and UCSB students after renovation.
It was a mass eviction in Isla Vista that served as the impetus for the creation of Chapter 44 in the first place: 36 tenants evicted from the Balboa Cortez apartments in 1998. At the same time, the organization formed that sought recompense for them. It has since evolved into the Isla Vista Tenants Union.
In 2006, shortly after purchasing the Cedarwood Apartments on Picasso Road in Isla Vista, the Radius Group issued notices via its lawyers to 55 families stating that they must vacate their residences within 30 days or risk fines and damage to their credit history. As stated in an HCD evaluation of Chapter 44, the previous owners, “Marsch Partners, rented units [to low-income families] for substantially less than nearby apartments, where students typically paid upwards of $650 a month to share a two-bedroom apartment with three other people.”
Earlier this year, at the behest of community groups like Rental Housing Roundtable and the I.V. Tenants Union, 1st and 3rd District County Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Doreen Farr requested the evaluation that culminated in a report presented on April 20 to the full Board of Supervisors.
The report identified six issues that amendments to Ordinance 4444 might address:
“Evictions, or termination-of-tenancies, abruptly displace tenants.
“Quality affordable housing is limited and the rental market is constrained.
“Tenants and landlords are generally unaware of rights and responsibilities as well as available services.
“Related services are limited, and may not adequately meet the need, particularly in the event of a mass eviction.”
“Certain provisions of Chapter 44 are not routinely enforced, are unclear, or are too burdensome.”
At the April 20 Board of Supervisors meeting, HCD presented 19 proposed solutions for fixing Ordinance 4444. These proposals add to the reasons for which an evicted family can receive relocation funds, including remodeling, rezoning, demolition, or condominium conversion.
Another core solution suggests that notice be issued 90 days in advance of evictions as opposed to 60, the current notice requirement.
Permitting would also be contingent on landlords providing proof of relocation payment.
The balance of the solutions suggest means of providing better and more accessible information and resources to both evicting landlords and evicted tenants.
“I think the requests are very reasonable,” said Belen Seara, executive director of PUEBLO, who added that she has heard no significant opposition to the solutions. Chuck Eckert, president of the Santa Barbara Property Owners Association, said, “I think that there can be an enhancement of protections that, if they don’t go too far, would not be unfair to property owners.”
Currently HCD is taking its 19-point list of solutions and molding them into amendments to be added to the County Code. On September 23, HCD held a meeting with several stakeholder groups to begin that process.
One potential barrier to the proposed solutions is state law. For example California law already requires a 60-day eviction notice for people on month-to-month leases, and Santa Barbara County may not have the authority to mandate its own, superseding notice requirement.
Eckert, however, said he is in favor of giving incentives, namely fast-tracking of permits, to evicting property owners who voluntarily offer additional notice to their tenants. The head of the property owners’ group also said landlords should have the option of providing assistance in forms other than liquid money. For instance, a landlord could provide alternate housing accommodations during renovations.
Whereas community groups tend to see relocation payments as restitution for the social and economic costs of mass evictions, from Eckert’s perspective, such payments are only justified when landlords either break the law or the terms of their leases. He did concede that mass evictions merit relocation payment because they “distort market conditions.” Eckert’s definition of a qualifying “mass eviction” was a bit more specific than that of the HCD report which defines it as “the termination of tenancy of all rental units in a multi-unit apartment building at one time.” Eckert said that a mass eviction meriting relocation payment would also require a constrained market and a short amount of notice given to evictees.
Hilary Kleger of the I.V. Tenants Union worried that mass evictions can result in homelessness, displacement, or children not being able to attend school. However, Eckert said that such consequences are so rare that they do not merit public policy decisions.
In fact, aside from anecdotal evidence, nobody knows for sure what has happened to the victims of mass evictions. The Rental Housing Roundtable would like to include the creation of a tracking mechanism in the amendments to 4444 so that policymakers and community groups better understand the actual fallout from these events.
Kleger said she feels like there was a tenuous nucleus of agreement between all of the stakeholders in a possible revision of the county code—from landlords to tenants to the Board of Supervisors—last April. The HCD Department was originally scheduled to read a draft ordinance October 19, but they have pushed the first reading back to December 7. According to Kleger it will be a “tougher sell” on that date, which falls during finals week at UCSB, and the I.V. Tenants Union is a student-run organization funded by Associated Students of UCSB. And by the time of the second reading on December 14, winter break will have begun, diminishing the number of IVTU representatives at the meeting.