In a meeting where political theatrics eclipsed the final outcome, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-1 to pass a just-cause eviction-protection ordinance, the details of which will be hammered out at a later date. Tenants’ rights advocates and landlords packed the chambers in what was a momentous debate. For organizers with CAUSE, who’ve been campaigning three years for such an ordinance, the outcome — hardly preordained — constituted a huge victory.
Tuesday’s vote marks the first major tenants’ protection measure passed by City Hall in many years and reflects the daunting economic realities imposed on working families by Santa Barbara’s unforgiving rental market. The new ordinance does nothing, however, to limit what rents landlords can charge; instead, it precludes landlords from evicting renters unless they have violated one of a list of specified violations, such as not paying rent. In addition, the council voted to require that all landlords — with only a few exceptions — offer their tenants one-year leases. While leases won’t prevent rent hikes, they will restrict when such rent hikes can occur, thus providing a modicum of additional economic stability for tenants.
The vote suggests there was council agreement, when in fact, it was — and will likely remain — a deeply divisive issue. Most striking was Councilmember Eric Friedman’s passionately conflicted soliloquy in which he laid out compelling arguments in favor of adopting recommendations made by a special task force three years ago that explored possible tenant protections. Made up of landlords and tenants, the task force met frequently for the better part of a year. Ultimately, it voted unanimously to require landlords to offer their tenants leases and to require them to pay relocation assistance for some tenants displaced by gentrification and mass evictions. That task force rejected just-cause eviction, however.
Landlords and property owners attending this Tuesday’s meeting frequently cited those task force recommendations, urging the council to honor them. As a legal matter, the council is not bound by the opinions of its advisory boards and commissions. But as a political matter, the council vote could have ramifications. “Bait and switch,” one landlord called it. “It used to be a handshake counted for something,” said another.
Councilmember Friedman anticipated serious problems down the road if and when the council finds itself moved to create other ad hoc stakeholder task force to find common ground. Despite his vigorous defense of the task force recommendations, Friedman ultimately could not bring himself to vote no on just cause. “I cannot vote against protecting our most vulnerable residents,” he said. Freidman recounted how his family had been forced to move from Santa Barbara to Lompoc as a child because of high rents and how he and his wife were also almost forced to move.
Councilmember Randy Rowse commented, “I have never heard anyone debate themselves so effectively as Mr. Friedman did,” adding, “I’m not sure who won.” Rowse — who cast the sole dissenting vote — fumed the council allowed itself to be stampeded into an ill-considered action by “emotions, feelings, and absolutely no data.” Like Friedman, Councilmember Jason Dominguez argued against just cause for several hours — suggesting it was an empty gesture and a “Frankenstein measure” that enabled certain councilmembers to “feel good about themselves.” However, he then also voted in favor of it. As a former attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara and California Rural Legal Assistance, Dominguez said, just cause would not prevent landlords from using rent increases to force out tenants.
Lucas Zucker, chief strategist with CAUSE, the organization pushing hardest for the ordinance, argued among other points that the relocation assistance alternative language exempted all tenants living in single-family homes. Zucker, an accomplished number cruncher, noted that 5,000 tenants live in single-family homes. As for evictions by rent increases, Zucker argued, the situation couldn’t get much worse than it already is.
And in fact, two years ago, out-of-town investment companies bought up large apartment complexes, evicted existing tenants — mostly Latino families — gussied them up, and rented them out to City College students. Most of the focus at the task force level — and later, when the matter came before the council’s Ordinance Committee — was about how much assistance should be required and what constituted “mass evictions.”
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon — chair of the Ordinance Committee — added just-cause eviction to the list of options to be considered by the council as a whole. Sneddon expressed appreciation for the task force work, but dismissed landlord concerns about just-cause protection as being overblown. “It’s one year at a time,” she said. “We can take it down a notch about never being able to get rid of a bad tenant or not being able to fix up an apartment.” For landlords, she said, it might be an inconvenience. But for the 57 percent of the city’s population that rents, she said, the ordinance will give them the breathing space to figure out what they’re doing come Christmastime or during the school year.