That four apartments owned by Santa Barbara’s most notorious landlord, Dario Pini, were undergoing extensive repairs might seem like good news, but to the four families who have just received eviction notices, it is a crisis. These evictions are a result of the City of Santa Barbara winning a protracted legal battle against Pini and his derelict properties. The court ruling temporarily turned the apartments over to a receiver who was required to bring the buildings up to code at Pini’s expense. Even at the moment of the city’s April 2018 victory, it was hard to imagine that tenants could continue to live amid the dirt, dislodged mold, and noise that the extensive repairs would cause.
Ironically, it is the very housing codes that the city used to force improvements on the West Mission Street property — improvements intended to protect the health and safety of the tenants — that are now being used to kick these families from their homes. The new property management company cites overcrowding as the reason for the evictions. Of the 16 units on Mission, 11 are considered overcrowded. The remaining seven tenant families will be receiving their 60-day eviction notices soon.
After years of covering Pini’s battles with the city, it seemed like an eighth wonder of the world that his apartments were being repaired. So on June 4, the Independent visited the property and met some of the tenants being evicted. According to both Pini and the receiver, all were good tenants, all were families with children, and none were being pursued for nonpayment of rent.
“I don’t know where we’re going to live,” Aracely Carranza told reporters last week. In her small, tidy apartment, she described how her family moved into the complex four years ago. Her husband is employed as a cook at a well-known, popular restaurant, and she stays home watching her four young children. Pini was a very friendly landlord, Carranza said. In fact, he had intervened when a neighbor harassed her children for being Mexican-American. Pini talked to the racist neighbor, Carranza said, and told her she’d be evicted if she didn’t behave. “He helped us a lot,” Carranza said.
But when their apartment flooded, Pini never came to fix it, as he said he would. Instead, they were moved to another apartment because mold had consumed not only the walls but also their bedding and furniture. When that apartment flooded, the new property manager made repairs the next day.
Carranza’s eviction notice cited overcrowding as violating their rental contract but made no mention of relocation benefits to help pay moving expenses, though they’re mandated in Health & Safety Code–based receiverships like this one. As for their deposit — which they need to put down on their next home — the receiver’s property managers had told Carranza it would come 20 days after they moved.
The city was taken flat-footed by the speed of the evictions. Deputy City Attorney John Doimas expressed dismay: “We would not want to split up a family unit,” but he also didn’t want overcrowding to hurt the properties once they were repaired and returned to Pini. The city stood by its certainty that Pini took advantage of tenants, he said. But what about the families?
Every month, representatives of the city, the landlord, and the receiver meet with Judge Colleen Sterne to discuss the tenants and the progress of the repairs. At the May 31 meeting, it soon became clear that because of long-term repairs, evictions were inevitable.
The property manager, Nancy Daniels, said tenants could stay at a motel for three days at Pini’s expense or in one apartment that had been left vacant for their use. Daniels told Judge Sterne that the vacant apartment was just being finished: “Today, I believe,” she said. But when Independent reporters visited the apartment complex a few days later, the supposed available apartment did not look ready for occupancy. A stove was sitting in the middle of the kitchen, and a bathtub was on its side in the living room.
When Carranza and her husband received their walking papers, they appealed to the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County for help. Chandra Carr, a housing specialist at Legal Aid, acknowledged that California had an occupancy standard of two people in a one-bedroom apartment. “But that is not the law,” she added. What is a law is one that protects families and another that states landlords cannot discriminate against children. “It’s a gray area that will be litigated,” she said, but children were a protected class. However, if another child is born, a family would be asked to move.
Skip Symansky, the Housing Authority’s chief operating officer, said two people per bedroom is a standard, but that the living room is also viewed as a potential sleeping area. In general, the Housing Authority allows four people in a one-bedroom apartment and six in a two-bedroom.
Rehousing tenants has been a heated issue in the receivership. During the trial, the city attorneys made impassioned pleas to protect tenants from vermin, villainous landlords, and evictions. They argued that receiverships usually ended in tenants being evicted. And because of the squeaky-tight rental market, these tenants could become homeless.
Homelessness is exactly what is terrifying these families. In Santa Barbara, where rental vacancies are as low as one percent and rents are sky high, many of Pini’s tenants would rather live in his crumbling apartments than face the alternative.
Though his critics have repeatedly called Pini a slumlord, he also charges some of the cheapest rents in town. As a result, many of his tenants are reluctant to move. Many who live at the Mission Street apartment complex can count their tenancy in decades; some have raised their entire family there. They’ve become so comfortable with the landlord that Pini suggested they call the Independent about the evictions, which they did. And Pini, who despises the people who’ve taken control of his properties and occasionally yells out in court at what he believes is their dishonesty, said that “throwing the people out on the street is evil.”