OUCH: Shooting fish in a barrel — I am informed by my Isla Vista landlord pals — is actually a lot harder than it sounds. The fish, they tell me, sometimes shoot back. The case of Katelin Danaher versus one of the biggest landlords in I.V. — Isla Vista Owners, LLC — is such an instance.
For the record, I have never met Danaher, a UCSB student and communications major. Nor have I met Erin Eliza Murphey Doherty or her husband, Richard Doherty — principal investors in Isla Vista Owners and residents of Montecito. I was intrigued, however, when late last year, I received a DIY press release from Danaher announcing that she was filing a small claims case against the Dohertys and their Isla Vista rental empire. She wanted her security deposit back.
Who sends out a press release for a small claims action? A third-year communications major, I supposed. I assigned the story to an intern, Lily Hopwood, mostly because she, too, lived in Isla Vista.
Erin and Richard Doherty, it turns out, bought the massive rental empire — said to be 40 rental properties with 634 tenants — from James Gelb. Everyone knowns Gelb. He was the F-bomb personified. Reporters with nothing better to do would call Gelb just so he’d cuss them out. His profanity veered almost exclusively toward the homophobic. When he chased an openly gay elected official up State Street one recent election night — after allegedly being provoked — Gelb left little to the imagination regarding the bodily fluids and orifices. Gelb was criminally prosecuted for this verbal assault.
That was in 2017, the same year he put his portfolio on the market for $79 million. He said he’d had enough of people’s jealousy. He was eating at Holdren’s Steakhouse five nights a week, going out with women one-third his age. And he didn’t need the aggravation inflicted by sea-level rise. Many of Gelb’s properties were on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. Those bluffs were then—and are now — in a state of active retreat.
Gelb sold out to Richard and Erin. One report said the whole shebang went for $66 million. I’ve heard $40 million. I don’t pretend to know. In the Daily Nexus, Richard Doherty explained the deal: “Constrained housing supply equals good opportunities.” He was describing the Isla Vista market of 24,000 students. In other words, shooting fish in a barrel.
Erin Doherty marketed on Facebook a three-bedroom Nido Road property to 12 tenants for $10,000 a month. Katelin Danaher was one. She occupied a converted storage loft. The noise and overcrowding caused her grades to suffer. In November 2019, she moved out.
But her landlords refused to return her $1,508 security deposit. Danaher ratted out the Dohertys to the fire and zoning enforcement departments. They, in turn, red-tagged Richard and Erin, for renting out not just two storage spaces but also an illegally converted garage. Danaher also sued her landlords in small claims court for $10,000. Judge Donna Geck awarded her $2,000.
Round One went to Danaher.
Richard and Erin reacted as would anyone who just found themselves shot by a fish; they sued for defamation of character. The basis of the case was the accusations Danaher made to the building inspectors and the Independent article by Hopwood. Richard and Erin, it should be noted, never responded to numerous calls for comment made by Hopwood.
It was their bad luck the case was assigned toJudge Thomas Anderle. How were the accusations defamatory, he wondered, when they’d been investigated and validated by county building inspectors?
Back in May, Judge Anderle blistered the legal attack waged by Richard and Erin calling their case “woefully deficient,” “specious,” and “intellectually dishonest.” He would conclude their lawsuit “was retaliatory and based upon neither an honest appraisal of the facts nor a realistic consideration of the applicable law.”
Round Two for the fish.
This Tuesday, Judge Anderle awarded Danaher $34,500 in legal fees incurred defending herself from the defamation charges. Although Danaher’s attorney took the case on contingency for $350 an hour, Anderle allowed him to charge $475 an hour, citing a state law designed to penalize those with an excess of power and money who use the legal system to punish those who have little of either.
Round Three for the fish.
It’s tempting to regard this as yet another story of greedy vindictive landlords getting a little comeuppance. But that misses the bigger picture.
Since 2010, UCSB enrollment has increased by 6,000 students. Its faculty and staff by 1,800. Community organizations — CPA, COAST, SBCAN, and the League of Women Voters — formed a group known as SUN, Sustainable University Now, which persuaded UCSB to sign an agreement that it would develop the necessary housing to offset the university’s growth plans.
The deal was very specific. The campus would provide 5,000 new units of on-campus housing; to date, it’s built 1,500 beds. The campus agreed to allow only 500 units in which students tripled up. We’re already at 1,700. As for the 1,800 new units of staff housing, we have 263. SUN put UCSB on notice last week that they intend to sue if they don’t see some real plans and real action.
Round Four for the fish? Too soon to say. But it could change the size of the barrel.