This is Isla Vista: surf and salt air, students on bikes, dogs on skateboards, swimmers on rafts, and across the Channel, the dazzling island view that gives this beach-bluff community its name.
And this is Isla Vista: mega-parties with beer kegs and live bands on the weekend, and thousands of people in the streets, leading to brawls, break-ins, and worse.
Isla Vista has always been a tolerant place. But in the wake of the murder of six UCSB students by a deranged young man last May, the mood is no longer so laid-back. “Party houses” are increasingly under scrutiny as the No. 1 public safety problem in the overcrowded community, and residents want landlords to be part of the solution.
“If the owners of the big party houses would take responsibility for their tenants, they could turn this all around,” said Sue Whisenand, a retired principal who holds neighborhood meetings on public safety at her home in Isla Vista. “They shouldn’t turn a blind eye to what goes on.”
That’s the message that Lieutenant Rob Plastino, head of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, hopes to convey every week by emailing a log of arrests, citations, and detentions, grouped by address, to property owners and management companies that sign up for it.
Isla Vista, the long-neglected stepchild of the county, has been under a microscope since last year’s murders, Plastino said, and landlords are no exception. After a slow start 18 months ago, he said, 70 property owners and managers are now signed up to receive the weekly logs. A few have come in to watch videos of parties at their buildings.
“It has definitely ramped up,” Plastino said of his email campaign. “I haven’t seen it manifest itself in real evictions until recently. Landlords are now working toward making Isla Vista a better place. They’re thriving in this community and should have some stake in its well-being.”
To help spread the word, the Isla Vista Property Owners Association sent out a bulletin aimed at 1,000 owners and managers titled “The Foot Patrol Needs Our Help.” The bulletin advised landlords to ban live music and “loud, unruly, or disturbing partying,” send notices of violations to parents, and be prepared to evict tenants, if necessary.
Along the same lines, Santa Barbara City College held a large meeting in April with landlords and property managers, including many from Isla Vista, asking them to include a code of tenant conduct in their lease agreements with City College students. By signing, tenants agree that landlords may report violations to college administrators.
But sometimes the trouble spills over from next door. Peter Neushul, a UCSB graduate, UCSB history teacher, and longtime Isla Vista resident, recently watched a Foot Patrol video of a live band party at 6614 Del Playa that overflowed onto his rental property. His tenants called the police, Neushul said.
“There was a live band playing, and a large group of people were on the roof of my house jumping up and down to the music, and it was disturbing,” he said. “We are a very forgiving place, but there need to be limits. I.V. has always been a bohemian, exciting town, a wild place — but did the parties involve 500 people and the kinds of arrests we’re seeing now?”
Desperate for a Fix
It’s not that all parties should be banned, Isla Vistans say: They “get” that they live in a college town. Of 15,000 residents, nearly 13,000 are students. But in the absence of a local government and regulations that are enforced, residents say, the mega-party culture is self-perpetuating and violence will find a channel.
“The people in I.V. are desperate for fixing, for a safer, more sustainable community,” said Cameron Schunk, a UCSB senior and the external vice president for local affairs for the university’s Associated Students. “This is a place you can call home. It is more than a student free-for-all. Even the students feel that way. We’re all kind of in this together.”
The county’s 2014-2015 property tax roll for Isla Vista lists 920 properties, most of them owned by investors who live elsewhere on the South Coast. Only 34 are listed on the Foot Patrol arrest logs for February and March weekends on average, but the list is different every week. Addresses on Del Playa Drive, Sabado Tarde Road, and Trigo Road figure prominently. The properties in the log are not necessarily party houses, Plastino said: Most arrests and citations occur in the street.
On a typical Friday or Saturday night, though, the Foot Patrol may shut down as many as five parties, Plastino said. The logs for February and March show an average of 66 arrests, citations, and detentions per weekend on charges ranging from underage drinking and loud music to burglary and battery. Isla Vista has only 7 percent of the county’s population but accounts for 25 percent of the county’s serious crime.
Bev Hills and Bart Nelson of Goleta pride themselves on keeping close tabs on their rental properties by day, but they don’t go there at night. So they were shocked when they watched a Foot Patrol video earlier this year of their tenants hosting Red Bull parties on the rooftops of their duplexes at 6680 and 6684 Sabado Tarde Road.
“I was furious,” Hills said. “It was like the roof was a wave. It was moving!”
Hills and Nelson put their tenants on notice for violating their lease, which allows no more than 10 people for parties in each unit and bars tenants from climbing onto the roof. The lease also allows the couple to fine tenants $500 per unit for playing live amplified music, Hills said.
“It will never be under control anywhere out there,” she said. “I don’t care if you spend the night on the property.”
VIDEO: This Isla Vista Foot Patrol footage shows a live band party at 6614 Del Playa that is spilling over onto the roof of 6610 Del Playa and the garage at 6611 Sabado Tarde Road.
Party houses change location from one weekend to the next, like shifting sand. But there are some chronic party houses, including the OK Chalet, a six-bedroom apartment building at 6789 Sabado Tarde Road, which Plastino says has been a problem off and on for years. Jessie Jay Benenati, a Santa Barbara realtor, bought it in 2003 and sold it last year to a Los Angeles investor for more than $1.3 million, court records show.
“I wanted out,” Benenati said. “The students drove me nuts. Until the cops really do something about it, Isla Vista is going to be degrading year after year.”
Another chronic party house, the Foot Patrol said, is a 15-bedroom apartment building at 6777 Del Playa Drive, one of four Isla Vista properties owned by Alta Community Investment VIII LLC of Westlake Village. The total assessed value of these properties is $7.4 million. Todd Kaufman, one of the owners, said the group had spent “a ton of money” renovating 6777 Del Playa “to make it one of the nicest on the strand there.” But he said the tenants were being treated “too much like clients and not enough like kids,” so the company evicted a few of them and switched property managers.
“I don’t think we were fully aware of what was going on,” Kaufman said. From now on, he said, parents will be asked to cosign all lease agreements.
James Gelb of Montecito, one of Isla Vista’s biggest landlords, said the real problem is that most owners do not manage their properties themselves. Gelb owns and manages 29 properties on Del Playa (DP), more than any other landlord on the street. The Foot Patrol says it has shut down many parties in Gelb’s apartments. But Gelb has not signed up for the weekly log. He said he can’t be expected to “be a police officer” for his 600 tenants. It’s enough, he said, that he walks the street during weekdays and picks up bottles and cans.
Gelb owns a total of 32 properties in Isla Vista with an assessed value of $39 million on the county property tax roll.
“I can’t hire security guards,” he said. “I have limited resources. Everybody has party houses on DP. Who am I to go out there on the weekends and risk my life to go break up a party? There are adults there, and if they want to be stupid, they’re stupid. It’s not my fault, and there’s not a lot I can do.
“I take a lot of crap out there,” he went on. “I’m 57, and the students make fun of me. I have high blood pressure from these people. I do the best I can.”