Three months ago, a group of Santa Barbara’s West Beach residents became so incensed by the noise problems generated by landlord Dario Pini’s tenants that they called the police — beat coordinators Ken Wojciechowski and Adrian Gutierrez — and convened a neighborhood meeting in the Veterans Memorial Building to vent, rage, and brainstorm possible remedies. Since then, Pini has cleaned up his act sufficiently that at a follow-up meeting convened in the same location this past Thursday night, Pini, who was invited by the beat coordinators, got a round of more than polite applause for his efforts.
“For the past couple of months, the neighborhood has been much more quiet,” said one woman. “We thank you.” It was Officer Wojciechowski, better known simply as “Wojo,” who took command of the gathering and invited Pini — whose rental practices have landed him in almost constant legal hot water with city authorities for the past 20 years — to address any questions the 35 to 40 people in attendance might have had.
He explained how certain groups of international students who rented from him liked to party too hard and that he has since stopped renting to them. (In previous interviews, Pini explained that Irish, Brazilian, and Saudi Arabian students in particular tended to get out of hand.) Pini also acknowledged that the out-of-town oil workers hired by Exxon to work at the Las Flores Canyon facility up the coast proved a poor mix for the quiet and picturesque neighborhood. Typically, these workers were longer term tenants, and when they got off work in the morning, they were ready to blow off some steam. Pini said he hired private security to keep a lid on the noise, and when that wasn’t enough, he said, he broke his contract with Exxon.
West Beach residents initially expressed concern that Pini was using several apartment buildings he owns in the neighborhood as de facto hotels to store overflow tenants. These tenants, the neighbors complained, tended to be the most disruptive. City Attorney Steve Wiley has thrown the book at Pini over this practice — which is against the law — and Wiley reported that earlier that day Pini and his attorney signed a settlement agreeing to $45,000 in fines. That detail did not come out during the neighborhood meeting, which was attended by City Councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Dale Francisco.
All the residents asking Pini questions were courteous. One woman praised the landscaping at his Villa Rosa motel as “artful.” Pini noted that $800 worth of succulents had recently been stolen. But others proved a little more pointed in their questions. Tony Vassallo, a longtime community activist, asked whether Pini would be taking such care with all of his many properties throughout the South Coast. Pini answered in the affirmative, stating he had recently been forced to evict the occupants of four separate units in a rental property he owns on Oceano Avenue. One woman pressed Pini — famous for renting to large numbers of mostly low-income Latinos — on exactly how many people he’d rent to. “We rent to families,” he said. “Some of them have extended families.” When she pressed further, he explained that he’d limit the number of unrelated adults in a rental to one per room. But what if each of the unrelated adults were married? the woman asked. “That could be eight people?” she asked. “I guess it could be,” Pini replied.
Tony Romasanta, whose Harbor View Hotel Hotel sits next to one of Pini’s problem properties, seized the occasion to praise Pini’s work ethic — ”He gets up to work at five in the morning,” Romasanta said — but in the gentlest of tones, faced Pini and challenged him to do a better job getting along with his neighbors. Romasanta noted that there were media representatives in the room, not to mention two city councilmembers.
While the vibe of the meeting at times bordered on that of love fest, the real action was far more confrontational, if elsewhere. Not only was Pini just fined $45,000 for his transgressions in the neighborhood, but City Attorney Wiley has put Pini on notice that he intends to seek a court order targeting Pini’s “25 worst properties,” mandating that they comply with the uniform housing code. That way, Wiley explained, such things as corroded tile molding and worn carpets would be covered in the order. Likewise, he said, Pini would be compelled to maintain adequate landscaping and trash pickup service, two of the complaints most frequently lodged against Pini and his properties.
Should Pini fail to meet this order, Wiley said, his office would file a “receivership” motion against Pini, meaning that a judge would assign some third party control over Pini’s properties. “They would collect the rent, pay the bills, pay the taxes, make sure the properties are managed,” said Wiley. “And only after all that was taken care of would Pini be paid.”
Pini and Wiley have a long history dating back to the 1980s when Wiley prosecuted Pini for wholesale unfair business practices, claiming that the substandard conditions of many of Pini’s properties constituted an unfair business practice. As a result of that court action, Pini was given the choice of being sentenced to live in one of his rental units or go to jail. He chose jail. Since then, Pini’s rental business has expanded, and, as he is quick to point out, he provides housing to those who would otherwise be hard-challenged to find it elsewhere.