A few dozen members of the Isla Vista Tenants Union protested the evictions of six Latino families in front of apartment complexes on Abrego Road Friday afternoon. Chanting and hoisting signs above their heads, picketers argued that the new management company, Majestic Asset Management Inc., unfairly kicked out low-income families who have lived in Isla Vista for decades. “Housing rights are human rights!” they chanted.
In August, six households renting from Majestic were served standard 60-day eviction notices. An onsite property manager had told the tenants that the company was intending to fix up the units for students to move in, according to attorney Robin Unander, who helped the tenants file small claims lawsuits. The suits allege that Majestic owes each tenant $10,500 in relocation payments for the forced move.
The tenants claim the evictions triggered a county ordinance, which requires landlords pay relocation payments to tenants if 10 percent of rental units in building of four units or more are emptied for the purpose of renovating the complex so substantially that a county permit is required. The point of the county ordinance is two-fold: To assist the resident in paying for a new security deposit and first and last month’s rent. The second is to encourage owners to keep their properties in habitable conditions.
Majestic was unaware of this ordinance, Unander claimed, and Majestic began to do some construction work last summer. Only sizable renovations require permits, and according to county records, Majestic applied for construction permits last October. Some of those permits are still in review and have not been issued. It’s unclear what future construction will occur.
In October, Majestic retracted the eviction notices for three of the units. However, that offer came too late for the tenants who had found new homes. Majestic decided to continue to do work on the apartments gradually — only two units at a time — because it was sensitive to the legislative intent of the ordinance. “They’re scrambling,” was Unander’s interpretation.
Attorney Drew Simons, who is representing Majestic, disputed that the management company preferred to rent to students. He confirmed that the rent would increase some, but he said Majestic would rent to whoever would pay market price. “Everyone in America wants to make a profit,” he said. “We’re not socialists.”
During the Friday protest, picketers echoed, “There’s nothing majestic about being a slumlord!” Simons disputed this and similar accusations on social media, arguing that nicer apartments void the slumlord label. Last Thursday, Majestic filed countersuits against the tenants, claiming each owed Majestic $700 to $1,100 in attorney’s fees.
“The point is that my clients are sensitive to the fact that the neighborhood is changing,” Simons said. “That’s an issue, but that’s not my clients’ issue. My clients feel like they are being attacked for the 300 units that have been displaced already. It’s unfair to attack my client and make my client the brunt of the activity.”
Simons went on to argue that out-of-town investors coming in are good for the community. “The implication is that it’s bad,” he said. “There are two sides.”
Evictions have a history in Isla Vista. In 2012, two dozen Latino families were evicted from a complex at 781 Embarcadero Del Norte after the property switched hands. In 2006, 55 residents at Cedarwood Apartments were evicted, one of the largest mass evictions in the area. After that, a group of tenant rights supporters called The Rental Housing Roundtable mobilized and rallied outside of the County Administration Building to urge the supervisors to update the county ordinance.
In 2010, 1st and 3rd District Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Doreen Farr, respectively, pushed for the ordinance to be evaluated and updated so that renters who are evicted would receive monetary assistance.
In the past week, the Tenants Union has spread this story on social media to launch a public awareness campaign, arguing that more than 300 long-term families have been forced out of their homes since 2002. In these occurrences, the tenants were evicted to allow for renovations and improvements that enabled the landlords to charge higher rents. In this case, the rent increases differed by unit.
Whether or not the county ordinance applies is scheduled to be hashed out in court on February 11, though the matter will likely be continued.