At the tail end of a budget meeting last Wednesday, four members of the Santa Barbara City Council said they wanted to look at a wide range of options that could afford tenants increased protection from the harsh realities of a market defined by an almost nonexistent vacancy rate and escalating rents. The move came after two tenants — working with the tenants-rights group CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) — testified how they’d recently been evicted from their Westside rentals by Ivy Apartment Homes, a Ventura County property management company.
The four councilmembers did not embrace any one legislative fix but rather instructed City Attorney Ariel Calonne to report back in the New Year with a broad menu of choices. When that happens, it will constitute the most ambitious discussion of tenants-rights initiatives to hit City Hall in 30 years.
On the table will be possible language for a just-cause eviction ordinance, mandatory yearlong lease options, and even rent stabilization, otherwise known as rent control. The council last debated just-cause eviction protections — which bar landlords from evicting tenants for anything but nonpayment of rent and other explicitly prohibited behavior — in the mid-1980s. At that time, the measure was narrowly defeated, but as part of a compromise designed to placate tenants-rights advocates, the council created the Rental Housing Mediation program.
In a subsequent interview, Calonne said an ordinance requiring landlords to offer one-year leases could protect tenants from multiple rent increases per year and add an element of stability for tenants without requiring council action as aggressive as a rent control ordinance. In 2002, Calonne successfully defended a similar ordinance when he was city attorney for Palo Alto.
Calonne said it was not clear whether the council directive included language for expanded tenant relocation assistance. Currently, city law requires landlords converting rental properties into condominiums to provide several months of rental assistance to displaced tenants. With rental real estate now replacing condominiums as a hot commodity, such conversions have grown relatively rare. Of more immediate concern is the conversion of low-end rental housing into high-end units and the attendant rent increases.
Tenants living at 520 West Carrillo Street — a 50-unit complex — reported that their rents are going from $1,300 a month for one-bedroom units to $1,975. Most tenants currently residing there are low-income Latinos. For many, such rent increases have the same effect as eviction notices. According to a representative of Ivy Apartment Homes, which bought the property for nearly $15 million on September 30, existing tenants will be allowed to reapply if they make two and a half times as much as the new rents — nearly $5,000 a month. In addition, nearly 15 households have been served with official notifications that their tenancies have been terminated and given until January 1, 2017, to move out.
Nothing Calonne or the City Council can or might do can address such urgent timelines. Tenant organizer Frank Rodriguez, with CAUSE, said he’s hoping to connect tenants there with the city’s Rental Housing Mediation in hopes of securing more time for the tenants to find new accommodations.
Ivy plans to rehabilitate the units at 520 West Carrillo in staggered batches. Tenants there claim they’re being pushed out to make way for City College students, which appears consistent with Ivy’s practice at six other properties it’s taken over on the Westside, where group activities — and other dorm-like amenities — are advertised. An Ivy representative insisted, however, that the company is open to all tenants and does not focus exclusively on college students.
The council also asked Calonne to report back with language for a new program requiring rental properties to be inspected once a year to ensure they pass basic health and safety requirements. Currently, city inspections are driven by complaints. Calonne — engaged in prolonged legal hand-to-hand combat with landlord Dario Pini on wholesale habitability — noted that Los Angeles has such an inspection program, which is paid for by a $12-per-unit surcharge. The point, he stressed, would not be minor code enforcement but major safety concerns like heat, plumbing, and structural soundness.
For the past six months, Rodriguez has been quietly trying to organize tenants and hosting community forums on tenants’ rights. With City Hall elections a year away and the mayor’s post up for grabs — councilmembers Cathy Murillo and Bendy White have expressed interest as has former mayor Hal Conklin — the issue of tenants protections could find greater political traction, especially in districts with large tenant populations.
But Leon Lunt, first vice president of the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, has no inclination to succumb quietly. “None of this has gone before our board yet, but I have a hunch there will be a little resistance,” he said. Lunt said tenants-rights protections are sweeping the state, noting that voters in at least two cities just approved rent-control measures. But Santa Barbara, he insisted, is different. “Fifteen percent of the city’s housing stock is dedicated to low-income housing. It’s subsidized already. I think you’ll see some resistance from our community.”