A solid year after the trial ended that pulled eight of Dario Pini’s properties out of his hands and over to the authority of William Hoffman, hammers have yet to be applied to nails in any consistent way. Nearly 2,000 Health & Safety Code and Building Code violations remain to be fixed, though dozens have been cured. Pini has paid more than $2 million so far — thoroughly unhappy about doing so — and he’ll pay even more before the work is done. But architectural drawings and building permits must be finalized before contractors’ trucks can pull into driveways.
The behind-the-scenes permitting work is ongoing at the city for Hoffman, a property receiver out of San Diego. At the 75 units at the eight properties, about 17 tenants have received an eviction notice, either 3-day, 30-day, or 60-day, mostly for not paying the rent. About seven others have received quit notices related to the construction or condition of their apartment, mostly toxic mold issues.
Hoffman’s team, fast learners, quickly understood that the court and the city were worried that in Santa Barbara’s very tight rental market, tenants not be tossed out because code violation were being fixed. They should be housed somewhere else or compensated financially, per the Health & Safety Code. It’s been a bumpy road.
In February, the winter storm that closed the 101 when Romero Creek flooded highway lanes also trapped Hoffman’s people on the other side, they told Judge Colleen Sterne in March. They were trying to reach tenants at Pini’s Cota and Valerio street properties, whose apartments had flooded because of blocked drains. The six units developed toxic mold, and Hoffman’s management company, Trigild, put the tenants into vacant units as possible, and also into Motel 6 for nearly a month, paying each a $75-per-day food allowance.
Pini had to foot the $126,000 bill, a price tag that shocked the court. Judge Sterne told Hoffman that was unsustainable. Four apartments’ worth of tenants — 35 people — were evicted; 13 others moved into two empty apartments at the properties. The evicted received $6,000 for lost possessions and moving costs. Their Health & Safety benefits, however, amounted to $8, which represented the difference between the rent they paid and a federal housing guideline.
“We knew the relocation benefits were subject to the formula under HUD [Housing and Urban Development], but the goal was to give people value for what they paid,” said John Doimas, assistant city attorney, of the minimal relocation benefits. “The main purpose [of the lawsuit] was to fix the dilapidated properties.”
There’s a healthy pinch of packrat in Dario Pini’s compositional makeup. It makes him able to turn a blind eye to piles of accumulating stuff, broke-down heaters, and cockroaches, and to things like raw 2x4s instead of drywall, plaster, and paint for walls, the last in Pini’s own home as shown in a city photograph. But for the City Attorney’s Office, that’s a serious equity problem in a rental property as well as a blight on the neighborhood.
That 35 people lived in four apartments is a symptom both of the overcrowding Pini allowed — city inspectors found people living in closets and living rooms — and the high cost of housing in Santa Barbara. Pini’s rents are arguably the lowest in town. A recent scan of two-bedrooms for let online showed the $1,950 some of Pini’s tenants pay is $400 dollars less than the nearest competitor.
Low rent is only one reason many tenants come to his defense. Unlike 99.9 percent of Santa Barbara landlords, Pini does not require an upfront payment of the first month’s rent, as well as the last month’s rent and a deposit of several hundreds of dollars. He doesn’t rely on references or credit scores either. A tenant who’d been homeless with his dog until two years ago sang Pini’s praises, and he was worried that his apartment’s seashell paradise might become a victim of Trigild’s re-construction mandate. Already he’d been told to take down his hammock; he protested to reporters that he knew to hang it from sound wood, not the rotted upright.
Replacing that rotted wood at Pini’s Mission Street apartments is part of about 160 violations to be cured by the upcoming repairs, for which Pini has paid close to $600,000 — he’s paid just over that amount for the bid to fix his Arrellaga Street property. Inadequate heating, ineptly installed electrical wiring, severe water damage, broken plaster inside and out, and failing ceilings are on the lengthy list. The cockroaches, bedbugs, and termites were fumigated in October.
In a phone conversation this week, Dario Pini said he thought all the work would be done by this point. He said with some irritation that the receiver made so much money he had no incentive to finish. It was incorrect that he had many millions to spend on the work, he clarified, and that his attorney had spoken out of turn on that topic during the court’s appointment of the receiver. It was expensive to run his business, Pini complained, especially when the receiver took his rent. He felt like they were trying to bankrupt him, and he now had to face an unfair competition lawsuit.
The city’s attorney, John Doimas, explained that the unfair competition lawsuit — filed in 2017 alongside the code violations suit — was the civil penalty phase of the case. The city’s theory, said Doimas, was that the long-standing code violations were not only health problems, they allowed Pini to retain money other landlords used to maintain and improve their properties. As much as $2,500 to $5,000 could be assessed for each violation.
As for the work progress so far, Doimas observed that much of the year’s battle has been in the courtroom, but the work now is being done out in the field. He hoped the next year brought a lot more of that.