Less Than Perfect but Habitable

In the course of my business, I had the opportunity a few years back to go into a significant percentage of the apartment units in Santa Barbara. My crews were replacing lighting through an SoCal Edison-subsidized program. I was surprised at the time by how many units had several bunk beds in the bedroom, or even the living room, and had other indications of large numbers of people living there — probably far more than the lease agreements stated. Some of these apartments were those of Dario Pini, but others belonged to many other owners. This amount of people was often hard on the units, which showed signs of wear and tear and general lack of care by both residents and owners. I gradually realized that that is where a lot of the lower-paid workers lived and how they could afford to live here.

As time passed, I saw a lot of these units taken out by corporations that evicted everyone and raised rents but also made the places look very nice and gentrified. When the Pini controversy erupted, I had a feeling that if the city got involved, somehow these people would end up losing their housing. There is a general unstated policy that it’s better for you to have no housing at all than slightly substandard housing.

Some of these units showed a Zen-like neatness, but many were a disaster with stacks of dishes breeding cockroaches and many other things needing attention. I learned that some of Pini’s rents were up to $500 a month below market, but those savings didn’t seem to go into any minor repairs that might be ignored by landlords. These landlords chose to look the other way. They seemingly let their properties go downhill but were providing very low-cost housing, especially considering the number of people splitting the rent.

I wasn’t looking for code violations but did see some. For example, if your water-heater pipe is a half-inch instead of three-quarter-inch, that is a code violation. But you can still take a shower (maybe you have to buy a shower head). If the landscaping is worn down to dirt, do you replace it? If you have mice, can you trap them and plug up their hole, or call the landlord who may never come (or might raise the rent if he did)? Or do neither!? No easy answers. Maybe you get what you pay for.

Is it really the city’s intention to move people to a totally fixed up unit they probably can’t afford, or move them to another city, or is that an unintended consequence?

I just returned from Thailand where the average house I saw would have numerous code violations by our standards, but people seemed to be living there quite happily and safely.

There is probably no perfect solution, but it seems like there could be some middle ground of lesser regulated, less perfect housing that people could choose for the sake of affordability.


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