David Sullins hitchhiked into Santa Barbara back in the 1970s at the age of 15. He wasn’t homeless, but as he tells it, there was more than a little street to him. Over the years, Sullins proved both shrewd and lucky; today he’s a successful landlord, and he’s paying it, as they say, forward. He’s renting out rooms to about a dozen homeless people as part of an especially aggressive emergency housing program run locally by both the city and county. “Maybe I’m being a sap,” Sullins ruminates before thinking better of it. “But they’re paying market rents,” he exclaims, “the same as what students get.” And his homeless tenants, Sullins says, aren’t that much harder on his properties than the students are.

‘Restarting Their Lives’: Since the voucher program started, CityNet’s Orion Brutoco said he’s housed 40 people. Of those, he said, not one has been evicted. | Credit: Courtesy

The “they” in this case happens to be the City of Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which received 89 federal emergency housing vouchers this past July enabling it to pay up to $2,070 for studio units and up to $2,415 for one-bedrooms. The County of Santa Barbara Housing Authority received 123 such vouchers, as well. To entice landlords, the Housing Authority is now offering first-time signing bonuses of $5,000. For subsequent leases, the bonuses are for $2,500. On top of that, there’s a $2,000 security deposit plus $5,000 worth of mitigation insurance for each voucher accepted. What comes along with all that is three years’ worth of support services coupled with a 24-hour hotline landlords can call if the circumstances should dictate.

When the vouchers were first released locally this July, there were few if any landlord takers. But when the incentives were added in September, doors began to open. “There are lots of compassionate landlords out there,” says city Housing Authority director Rob Fredericks. “But money talks.” Today, the majority of the city’s 89 vouchers have been leased up. 

Sullins, it turns out, would probably have done it anyway. He has a long history of renting out about 25 percent of his units to low-income renters with Section 8 housing vouchers. What sweetened the pot for Sullins was Orion Brutoco, the 35-year-old regional housing supervisor with CityNet, a nonprofit outfit specializing in homeless outreach and housing services. Like Sullins, Brutoco himself was never homeless. But he knows about struggling with substance abuse. It’s been his mission to find landlords and persuade them to participate. Mostly, Brutoco says, he lets his clients do the initial persuading. But he arranges the meeting. “When the clients meet the landlord, they say this is who I am; this is what I do,” he explained. “And then we talk about the services we provide. Usually that’s enough to overcome the initial reluctance.”

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What Brutoco and CityNet bring to the table sounds considerable. He meets weekly with his clients, making sure their apartments are clean, that there’s food, and that they get to their appointments. If any problems arise, he deals with them, too. Landlords know they can call him day or night. “I have a master’s degree in social work,” he says. “I can de-escalate any situation.” Before his clients move in, Brutoco furnishes the apartment. “This is about restarting their lives,” he says. Since the voucher program started, Brutoco said he’s housed 40 people. Of those, he said, not one has been evicted.

Sullins acknowledged there have been issues. One tenant accidentally put $500 worth of water on the front lawn. Another got into it with neighbors. Words were exchanged over a backyard fence. The neighbors started it, Sullins said. But his newly housed tenants weren’t about to back down. “They’ve been living on the street,” he said. “They can get scrappy.” Brutoco was called. Things got smoothed over. Generally, Brutoco said, he likes to notify neighbors in advance. Some have comments and concerns, and it’s important to listen, he said.

At a time when there’s a nearly zero percent vacancy rate, Brutoco’s job is to get people off the streets and out of stop-gap motels and hotels. His job is to get them into apartments and houses so they can get the services they need. It’s not easy. “I’ve had hard times in my life,” he says. “What makes me different from any of my clients? They’re just humans.”

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