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By unanimous vote, the Santa Barbara City Council adopted a measure to extend the ban on tenant evictions for those who fail to pay rent because of the COVID virus. The moratorium enacted by the council earlier this March is scheduled to expire May 31. The council’s action will have teeth only if Governor Gavin Newsom decides to extend the COVID emergency measure he adopted early this March that gave local governments the authority to enact such moratoriums. Without the governor’s declaration, city councils would not have that authority.
Santa Barbara tenants who qualify will have from six to 12 months to pay landlords the back rent. Those payments, the councilmembers agreed, need to be made in regular monthly installments and not as one big balloon payment due at the end of a 12 month period. By giving tenants more time, councilmembers reckoned, landlords in a hurry to get repaid might be more willing to agree to more amenable terms.
If Newsom chooses not to extend the emergency eviction protection declaration, then tenants could face possible eviction for failure to pay rents after May 31. As a practical matter, however, Newsom put the court system on notice that the necessary eviction paperwork could not be enforced until 90 days after the emergency declarations had lapsed.
Though the specifics of the language differs, the eviction ban applies to both commercial and residential tenants. Nearly 10 speakers — some affiliated with CAUSE, La Casa de la Raza, or the Santa Barbara Tenants Union — urged the council to take stronger action. One quoted Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and his battle cry of land and liberty — “Tierra y Libertad” — and urged the council to take more forceful action to dispel the notion — and reality — that Santa Barbara is a “really perverse false oasis for the very few while so many suffer to put food on the table.”
Mayor Cathy Murillo asked City Attorney Ariel Calonne if the council had the legal authority needed to enact a “rent forgiveness” ordinance. Calonne replied the council did not, adding, “I can’t advise that.”
Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez expressed concern that some landlords were “harassing” their tenants to move out despite the city’s existing temporary moratorium on evictions. She said she knew of six specific instances. “I want something stronger,” she declared. Calonne proposed that perhaps his office could provide guidance to such tenants, perhaps even taking their cases as private clients, especially if multiple tenants were involved. This generated blowback from other members of the council, who worried about Calonne taking on more work when all departments were instructed to reduce services and costs by at least 5 percent in response to the economic mayhem caused by the pandemic. “I love the idea in theory,” stated councilmember Meagan Harmon, “but I’m not clear in practice how that works out.” Calonne beat a partial retreat, volunteering to assign his bilingual investigator to offer telephonic consultations with tenants experiencing such issues.
Representing the Santa Barbara Rental Property Owners Association, attorney Betty Jeppesen argued against extending the moratorium. Tenants adversely affected by the economic plunge would be better served, she argued, if the council set aside federal housing funds that have been earmarked for tenant relief. She said $19 million had been budgeted for just such purposes. City Hall, it turns out, has already secured $530,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds that can also be used for this purpose. That money, the council was told, would not last long, nor would it cover many tenants. In addition, there were application requirements and other paperwork that might make it a cumbersome solution for people in need of speedy relief.
Jim Knell of the SIMA Management Group, which owns and manages many downtown commercial storefronts and offices, argued the best protection the council could provide commercial tenants was opening State Street back up for business. He also urged the council to eliminate commercial tenants from the moratorium extension. No commercial tenants showed up, Knell pointed out, to testify they needed help. Most had already worked out deals with their landlords. “Take the commercial party out of the equation,” Knell said. Councilmember Michael Jordan saw it otherwise. “If it’s all working out okay, then there’s really no harm in keeping this as a backup,” he argued.
The matter is scheduled to come back next Tuesday for a final vote.
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