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Santa Barbara’s First Major Tenant Protections in 35 Years

City Council Meeting Was Not Pretty but It Was a Step in the Right Direction

Photo: Paul Wellman City Councilmember Eric Friedman

On occasion, Santa Barbara’s City Council flows with all the svelte precision of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Other times, it careens like a pack of drunks looking for a flight of stairs down which to fall. For the last two weeks, the council has deliberated over a just-cause eviction ordinance and other tenant protections. Their deliberations have definitely fallen into the latter camp. 

Last week, the council voted in favor of a just-cause eviction protection ordinance ​— ​six to one. You might think that all was harmony. But no. Councilmember Eric Friedman delivered a spectacularly agonized soliloquy in favor of other tenant protections instead. He then voted for just cause anyway, even though he was furious that Kristen Sneddon ​— ​chair of the city’s ordinance committee ​— ​had added it to the menu of options at the last minute. He explained he could not not vote to protect the city’s most vulnerable residents. At the same meeting last week, Councilmember Jason Dominguez beat the crap out of just cause as an empty rhetorical gesture that enabled supporters to feel good about themselves. He then proceeded to vote for it.

This week, Dominguez was all over the map again when considering a measure requiring landlords to offer tenants annual leases ​— ​thus providing renters the option of having a modicum of price stability in a notoriously volatile housing market. Over the past 10 years, average rents for a two-bedroom apartment have increased by $1,000. Wages, I assure you, have not come close to keeping pace. This time, Dominguez opted to abstain from voting altogether, which means, regarding renter protections, he has been for, against, and neither. 

Initially, I was bugged by all these votes. I worried the council was just reaching for a politically correct flag to wave. In embracing just cause, the council was ignoring the recommendation of the task force the council created to hash out possible tenant protections. That task force ​— ​made up of landlords and tenants’ activists ​— ​expressly rejected just cause, recommending instead mandatory lease and relocation assistance for tenants evicted through no fault of their own.

Funny thing. This week, I happened to talk with a 92-year-old woman who’d just been evicted after renting the same place for 20 years. She offered to pay $700 a month more if she could stay. The landlords said they needed her out to do renovations. After much cajoling and crying, the landlords gave the woman four months to get out instead of the two initially offered. On the way out the door, the landlord planted a kiss on this woman’s forehead. “A Judas kiss,” she called it. Had the ordinance been in effect ​— ​the details have yet to be worked out ​— ​she could have gotten three to four months’ rent in relocation assistance instead.

This week, I happened to talk with a 92-year-old woman who’d just been evicted…. On the way out, the landlord planted a kiss on this woman’s forehead.

Councilmember Randy Rowse, who voted against just cause and who represents the grumpy older white male demographic into which I am slipping, rightfully objected that none of the other councilmembers mentioned a single fact to justify their yes vote. That doesn’t mean such facts don’t exist. One need only ask. 

The Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, in its work concerning housing, handles almost nothing other than landlord–tenant disputes, almost all evictions. In 2015, Legal Aid handled 497 cases; last year, that number was 536. Last year, the Rental Mediation Task Force fielded 1,000 calls for service. Of these calls, 35 percent involved evictions of some kind. Last year, landlords countywide filed 888 eviction actions in Superior Court.

No doubt, some of these tenants got what they deserved. No doubt others did not. Landlords say it will take three to five times as long to get rid of problem tenants with just cause. They object that the burden of proof will now fall on them to justify their evictions. Landlords will screen their tenants more carefully now, they warn; those with marginal histories will have a harder time finding housing. 

It’s a plausible-sounding argument. The problem is that’s what the landlords always say. I say this having attended many of the task force hearings. Landlord representatives first insisted there is no evidence to indicate mass evictions are happening. Then, they argue any proposed solution will only make the nonexistent problem even worse. I have heard them even deny that vacancy rates are not all that tight. 

In reality, many tenants will never contest their evictions even with just cause. Some will. It might well be an added burden for the landlords. It won’t, however, be the end of the world. And since when did “due process” become a four-letter word?

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would have been nice. But the first major tenant protections in 35 years? Sometimes you have to stumble before you can dance. 

[Correction: Legal Aid in Santa Barbara’s work in housing deals largely, not exclusively, with eviction.]

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