THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNIE: At age 80, Ernie Salomon is not going quietly into anybody’s good night. And if Ernie has his way, he’ll make sure nobody else gets any sleep, either, especially Santa Barbara City College’s congenially charismatic Jefe del Mundo, Lori Gaskin. As usual, Ernie — “The Eyebrows That Roar” — Salomon is on a sustained tear, this one about the not-so-quiet violence inflicted on Santa Barbara’s tenants and working families by ever-escalating rents. A public access TV talk-show host for 18 years, Ernie understands there’s no drama without a bad guy. And the bad guy in Ernie’s book is SBCC (with all its out-of-state and international students), UCSB (preparing to expand enrollment by another 5,000), and the fabulously successful English language schools that draw leggy and linguistically adventurous globe-trotting youth to our teeming shores by the thousands. A retired commercial real estate broker, Ernie understands what’s manna for landlords is hell on Earth for tenants seeking a toehold in Paradise. While real wages have remained flat or drooped since 1995, rents have increased by more than 300 percent; Ernie — never given to calm understatement when expectoration and hyperventilation might do — blames SBCC; in that same period, he points out, the college has tripled the number of out-of-state and international student enrollees. That doesn’t include the 220 Kaplan students who use campus facilities even though they are technically separate and apart from SBCC.
With classes now resuming at City College, Ernie’s revving his engines for another assault on the Citadel by the Sea. It won’t be pretty. Ernie is quick to verbally maul those with whom he disagrees, calling them cancers, Nazis, thugs, and racists. He denounced Goleta gal pal pop diva Katy Perry — now embroiled in a weird real estate dispute with elderly Catholic nuns — as “a bitch.” (Ernie, a Jewish refugee from World War II, has become the self-appointed savior for older nuns anywhere squeezed out by real estate speculators and bunco artists.) He dressed down a local journalist whose coverage he deemed subpar as “a child reporter.” It’s tempting to dismiss Ernie as yet another angry kook, but he’s had serious impact. When Lori Gaskin, City College, and pretty much every high-profile Democrat in town — who, with scant exception, showed up at press conferences extolling the virtues of the bond measure — asked voters last year to approve a $288 million bond measure to pay for a laundry list of much-needed improvements at SBCC, Ernie pretty much killed it single-handedly. (His crew raised about $3,000; Gaskin and the Machine raised around $350,000.) For a while, Ernie was part of a nine-person committee, most of whom insisted on anonymity. But Ernie’s email rants proved so incessant, nasty, and over-the-top, he and his own committee parted company.
Joining Ernie in the crusade to get City College to address its housing impacts is Lanny Ebenstein, Santa Barbara’s resident philosopher king, political busybody, and community crusader. Lanny — in sharp contrast to Ernie — is perhaps the most unfailingly polite person in all of Santa Barbara. When Lanny disagrees with someone, he always finds a way to do so agreeably. Making Lanny even more unique, he genuinely listens to the other side and then engages in actual dialogue. To the extent Lanny has ever gotten outright mad at anyone, it was at me last year for writing critically — “inaccurate” was what he called it — about the aforementioned City College bond measure, which Lanny emphatically championed. Ernie and Lanny may not qualify as the ultimate yin and yang of Santa Barbara politics, but as odd couples go, they’re odd enough to keep Lori Gaskin awake nights. Lanny has been peppering Gaskin and members of the SBCC board with detailed missives pointing out how the number of out-of-state and international students enrolled at SBCC jumped from 872 in 1998 to 2,972 last year. The City College board could vote, he argued, to reduce that number by 1,000. To make up for the lost revenues — these students pay four times more to attend than in-state students — he suggested the board jack up tuition for such students even more than it is.
City College, to be fair, is only part of the bigger problem wreaking such havoc on Santa Barbara’s nonexistent rental market. Airbnb is claiming 1,072 vacation rental units in Santa Barbara. That’s a massive chunk of housing to be taken off the rental market. With the simultaneous proliferation of vacation rentals and out-of-town students, little wonder Santa Barbara renters find themselves squeezed past the popping point. Little wonder Independent reporter Léna Garcia was recently told she had to pony up $115 for her rental application to even be considered by Bartlein management company — $115! If Garcia’s financial records passed muster — and she subsequently signed on Bartlein’s dotted line — Garcia was told the $100 would be credited to her security deposit. But if she declined to sign, Bartlein would keep her $100. Technically speaking, landlords are allowed by state law to charge no more than $44.51 to screen prospective renters for their tenant-worthiness. Landlords are allowed to charge additional “holding fees” or “application fees” — the $100 — but typically that’s extracted only from tenants who pass the first screening. For those tenants who opt not to rent, Bartlein is legally entitled to keep only as much of the $100 as the company “lost” by having to find another tenant. Given the insane demand for rental housing, I’d suggest Bartlein could fill the void in no more than three nanoseconds. As a skim and a gouge, $100 may seem like small potatoes, unless, of course, it’s your pocket from whence said funds come. For tenants, it’s just another quasi-legal shakedown they must endure.
In the meantime, it would be nice if Ernie learned not to call people names. Maybe Lori Gaskin and the City College board would hear better what he has to say. Maybe along the way Santa Barbara’s tenants could find a modicum of relief. And maybe we could all get some sleep.