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There was plenty of drama but not much action at a special evening meeting of the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday to discuss new tenant rights legislation. The question being considered was whether the council could impose even stronger tenant protections than those in Assembly Bill 1482, signed into California law last fall. In the end, the council unanimously voted to commission a new study to determine how much landlords would be required to pay tenants forced to move through no fault of theirs.
Under AB 1482 — an omnibus tenant-protection measure — landlords now have to pay those tenants one month’s rent to cover moving costs. But a proposed city ordinance the council was considering last April, before the new state law was approved, would require landlords to pay up to five months’ rent or $5,000, whichever was more.
In the packed chamber, smaller “mom-and-pop” landlords warned that such additional requirements would be economically catastrophic, forcing them to sell to bigger, out-of-town rental companies — not the sort of landlords to charge rents 30 percent below market — as one worried property owner claimed. They wanted the council to hold off on passing any additional protections until discovering what impact the new state laws will have.
Dr. Samuel De Palma, a theater arts performance professor with a basso profundo voice, predicted that his 90-year-old mother “might lose her home” if she found herself forced to pay $5,000 in relocation assistance to one of her two tenants. What if his mother needed to evict a tenant to make room for an in-home care provider? “My mother has no savings, no money to pay five months’ rent.”
Similar concerns were expressed by other landlords. Some testified they had been homeless themselves at one time. Many described how hard they worked to maintain their properties and how the cost of doing business was exploding. One said her insurance had increased from $8,000 to $18,000. “I don’t want to be looked at as if I’m the ‘Evil Empire,’” another landlord said.
Tenants’ rights advocates also showed up in significant numbers. Frank Rodriguez and Lucas Zucker from CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) argued the exodus of low-income tenants chased out of town by rising rents and no-fault evictions has been increasing steadily for years. They noted that Santa Barbara rents had increased 27 percent between 2014 and 2019 around the time an out-of-town company started buying up Westside apartment houses and evicting tenants. Zucker argued that the economic hardships caused by no-cause evictions were just as hard even if caused by small landlords instead of big corporations. “We don’t let small corporations dump toxic waste into the ocean,” he stated.
Councilmember Eric Friedman said he knew firsthand the consequences of evictions. A rent increase forced his own family to move from Santa Barbara to Lompoc when he was 12 in the middle of a school year. As a result, the Lompoc school would not admit him. Friedman’s solution is for City Hall to create a new public bank to finance the construction of new housing. That, he said, would require a new bond or tax, and he put landlords on notice he expected their support.
Most councilmembers said they would not support $5,000 relocation fees except in instances of mass evictions, though it was not clear what precisely they meant by “mass eviction.” A majority of councilmembers were intent on maximizing protections for the most economically vulnerable tenants — the elderly, the disabled, and those with low incomes. The newly commissioned study presumably will unearth data that will help councilmembers better calibrate how much relief they hoped to extract on behalf of which tenants. That study should be completed within 60 days.