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‘Certain Discomforts’ or Mass Evictions?

Court Wrestles with Tenant Occupancies in Dario Pini Receivership

Bill Hoffman, receiver for the Dario Pini properties (left), and John Doimas and Denny Wei, attorneys for the City of Santa Barbara, confer during a break in the August 2 hearing which discussed the pending eviction of hundreds of tenants. | Credit: Paul Wellman

The course of true love has never run smoothly, and it’s running even rougher over on East Carrillo Street at a property owned by Santa Barbara’s infamous landlord Dario Pini. This is one of seven Pini-owned properties now under court-appointed receivership, and it has the unfortunate circumstance of at least three units with too many people living in them. That means three of six people have to go.

Along with a litany of unsavory conditions like bedbugs, cockroaches, mold, and rotten walls, overcrowding is an illegal condition under attack in the city’s attempt to restore Health & Safety Code order at Pini’s properties. But at East Carrillo, the receiver cites as overcrowded just two people living in a couple of studios and in a one-bedroom having 64 square feet. Are they married? Are they cohabitating? Is one a minor? The last is a mystery that Judge Colleen Sterne has ordered the receiver to suss out to better understand just who will be getting a 60-day notice to vacate. But even if any are a loving couple, they’re still one too many persons to occupy the premises, at least under the city’s building code.

They and 273 other people at Pini’s six other properties under repair by receiver Bill Hoffman are said to inhabit overcrowded apartments — some with as many as 10 people in a two-bedroom and six people in a studio apartment. As the construction work to make all the units livable again gets underway, each will in turn get 60-day notices to either reduce their numbers or leave. Already, on West Arrellaga and West Mission — the first of Pini’s properties to be renovated — 60-day notices were served on eight apartments. Two sets of tenants reduced their “crowd” to the allowed number, and one family moved.

For those who remain, one could quibble over whether their five evictions could be called “mass” evictions, as happened in court on Friday, but they’re in their homes still because they can’t find anywhere they can afford to live. And by the law of large numbers alone, among the 44 other of Pini’s apartments identified as overcrowded, almost 30 are likely to end up in eviction. If not a “mass,” it’s such a large number in Santa Barbara’s nearly invisible affordable rental market that several nonprofits are joining forces to find help for them.

During the course of the three-hour hearing on Friday morning, the court and the attorneys stated more than once that eviction has been looming for 15 months or more. Judge Sterne said that housing tenants has been of tremendous interest to all involved since the first day of the case. But the intent was to return tenants to clean units that met legal standards. It was clear, she said, that “certain discomforts would be unavoidable.”

Among about nine motions scheduled that morning, one major issue at hand was whether Pini would be allowed to enjoin, or prevent, the evictions. The motion should have been in the form of preliminary injunction, Sterne said, and was therefore deficient in every way. But she gave the issue careful consideration, including hearing arguments in court from the attorneys present. Pini’s attorney, Paul Burns, sought to hold the city’s feet to the fire of remorse for causing the receiver to be appointed who was now evicting all the tenants. Attorneys for the city John Doimas and Matthew Silver shot back that a concerned landlord would open his pocket to help his tenants with the expenses of moving, such as first and last month’s rent and the deposit most rentals require.

When Burns stated the international housing code governing the city’s crowding policies wasn’t actually in the municipal code, the city’s new prosecutor, Denny Wei, stood to inform the court that it was, at section 22.04.010. Further, he said, it was widely used in municipal law, including at the City of Burbank where Wei was recently senior assistant city attorney. Doimas pointed out that it would be near impossible to instruct the city’s building inspectors to ignore the city municipal code when it came to overcrowding.

Sterne held out an iota of hope for the tenants as she pondered aloud the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara‘s more lenient crowding standards. She said that some, especially those with minor children, who wished to return to their apartment could apply to the court to see if any special circumstance warranted it. The court had some degree of choice, she said, though “following the law is a starting place.”

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