Five Isla Vista tenants who filed small claims lawsuits against their landlord, Majestic Asset Management, settled their cases last week for an undisclosed amount. The tenants, who were Latino families, were evicted from their households last fall and sought assistance from the Isla Vista Tenants Union earlier this year.
At issue in the lawsuits was whether or not a county ordinance — which requires landlords to pay their tenants relocation payments under certain circumstances —had kicked in or not. Updated in 2012, the ordinance states that if owners evict tenants to majorly renovate the premises, requiring a county permit, then they must pay these benefits; it’s essentially a narrow version of a “just cause” eviction law. Part of the intent was to prohibit landlords from allowing the conditions of residences to run amok.
According to attorney Robin Unander, who has a private law firm and advises at UCSB’s Associated Students Legal Resource Center, Majestic had planned to do substantial work on the units and was not aware of this ordinance. When they discovered they could be on the hook for relocation benefits, Majestic stopped construction work and never went through with the permits, Unander said. In the end, minimal renovations such as new paint and carpet were all that were done on the units. Based on the wording of the ordinance, it’s unclear whether or not they would have had to pay benefits had the matter gone to trial, Unander added.
Attorney Drew Simons, who represented Majestic, said due to the cost, time demands, and “uncertainty of litigation,” the parties negotiated an out-of-court settlement. “While my clients adamantly deny any wrongdoing, they feel the settlement was reasonable under the circumstances and believe the plaintiffs feel the same way,” Simons said in an email. “I think both parties are glad to put this behind them.”
Unander gave props to Majestic for “being willing to come to the table” but said the tenants are disappointed with the outcome. “They understood what they had at risk to lose,” she said, referring to the countersuits Majestic filed against the tenants, amounting to $700 to $1,100 for attorney’s fees.
It’s unclear how many tenants have utilized the county ordinance since it was updated about three years ago. In 2013, nine tenants took their cases court after two dozen Latino families were evicted from a complex at 781 Embarcadero Del Norte in Isla Vista. Three tenants each won $10,000.
As it currently exists, the Isla Vista Tenants Union dates back to 1999 after 33 families were evicted from apartment complexes. Directed by students, it operates under the wing of UCSB Associated Students and works in conjunction with the Legal Resource Center, with which they share an office. In the last 11 months, the Legal Resource Center saw 974 UCSB undergrads and grads walk in for assistance. Of those, 311 were tenant-landlord issues; 429 were criminal arrests or citations.