A View of 6533 El Nido Lane in Isla Vista. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

The property scene in Isla Vista can be characterized by its packed houses, inflated rental prices, and monopolistic behavior among landlords, which most UC Santa Barbara students tolerate in order to live near friends and campus. However, former I.V. tenant Katelin Danaher took local housing management company Playa Life IV to court last month on the grounds of overcrowding and illegal development — and won.

Danaher, then a newly arrived third-year transfer student to UCSB without knowledge of the competitive Isla Vista housing market, moved into a three-bedroom house on El Nido Lane during the summer of 2019. Although the lease stated that occupancy of more than 11 tenants was not permitted, Danaher was under pressure to find accommodation, so she signed on as the 12th tenant; the lease was reviewed and approved by Playa Life IV manager Grant Denham.

“I feel that they’re taking advantage of UCSB students’ desperation for housing, and they’re price gouging,” said Danaher. “It’s a three-bedroom house, but they’re charging $10,000 a month for rent, so you have to squeeze in as many kids as possible. They’re doing this all for profit, and they’re doing this because they can.”

After feeling unsafe in her home and discovering that her living situation was illegal — a storage loft and converted garage were being utilized as sleeping spaces, which posed a fire hazard — Danaher contacted the County of Santa Barbara’s Planning and Development Department, which ordered unlawfully converted and occupied rooms vacated and issued Playa Life IV a Notice of Violation. She could have found someone else to sublet from her rather than contacting authorities, Danaher said, but she didn’t want to impose her unsafe living situation on another student.

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When Danaher moved out in November 2019, the landlord withheld her security deposit; she incurred significant moving costs, prorated rent fees, and other charges. To try to recover her deposit and costs, Danaher initially filed in small claims court in February this year, but her legal journey took almost a year as COVID-19 delayed hearing dates. She sued for $10,000 — $8,683 for general reimbursements and $1,317 for punitive damages — and opted to put the case in front of a judge following an unsuccessful mediation.

“I came to mediation, and everything I said, I had — exhibits, evidence, proof to back it up. I pulled up their advertisement on Facebook that said it’s a three-bedroom but can fit 14 kids,” said Danaher. According to Danaher, Playa Life’s representative Aaron Murphy said that the number of tenants listed on the lease was a suggestion. 

“If the number of tenants is a suggestion, wouldn’t rent be a suggestion too?” Danaher said. “They said that no one has ever sued them or will ever sue them — ‘everything’s been fine until you came along’ — which is intimidation and almost defamation, because they’re trying to make me seem like I’m the only person who’s ever had an issue, and I know that’s a lie.”

Ultimately, Judge Donna D. Geck ruled against Playa Life IV and awarded Danaher $2,000; this accounts for her $1,508 security deposit and an additional $492. 

“It wasn’t the full amount, but I still won,” said Danaher, who has been supporting herself financially since she was 18. “When they kept my security deposit, that put me in a horrible financial situation amidst finals. I had to beg the UCSB Office of Financial Aid to give me an emergency loan because I didn’t know how I’d survive. I pursued this because I know how much time, work, and effort it took me to save up that amount of money, and I hope the ruling in my favor might wake Playa Life up to the real-life consequences.

“I don’t want to just look out for myself. I never want another student to have to go through this, and I want to advocate for UCSB students’ right to safe and affordable housing. It’s ridiculous. We’re just trying to go to school.”

The Independent reached out to Playa Life IV but was not able to get a comment by press time.

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