There’s nothing spookier than rent in Santa Barbara.
At least that’s according to one of the many handmade signs on display during the Rent’s Too High Tenants Rally held over Halloween weekend in front of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, where area residents feeling the squeeze from rising rents shared their own horror stories to help spread awareness of a growing housing crisis in the city.
The event was organized by the Santa Barbara Tenants Union, with several advocates from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) also participating and sharing their own experiences working with residents.
“The rent’s too damn high,” said Santa Barbara Tenants Union cofounder and CAUSE advocate Stanley Tzankov, “because we’re forced to commute farther, pack in tighter, and wait longer for repairs — if they even happen — and that’s just for those of us who haven’t already been pushed out of the region yet.”
He encouraged the city to pass rent control, enforce penalties on landlords who evict illegally, provide support for legal representation for tenants, and dedicate funding for “truly affordable housing.”
Dora Maria Perez has been working with CAUSE for over 20 years, helping advocate for tenants and inform them of their legal rights in disputes with landlords. During the rally, she shared the stories of several Spanish-speaking families in the area, including one local mother who was recently evicted from a studio apartment she shared with her three daughters.
The mother, Perez said, “begged to stay” in the unit, but the landlord refused to extend the lease and also refused to return the full security deposit. Despite the fact that there were several open units on the property, Perez said the landlord gave the family an ultimatum: pay another full deposit to stay in one of the open studios or live in the landlord’s garage until they were able to find another apartment.
She couldn’t afford the extra deposit, and the family of four squeezed into the garage space “alongside garden tools,” Perez said, until they could find a new home.
It was just one of the many examples of tenants in Santa Barbara feeling the rental crunch in every sector of the working class. In one apartment, tenants are asked to pay $20 to use the stove or bathroom. In another, the management refused a request to change a carpet more than 20 years old, then later returned and said they would update the carpet only if the tenants agreed to a higher rent. Some are forced to fix their own appliances, while others are hesitant to complain even in the face of illegal rent hikes.
“They are afraid to speak up,” Perez said. “That’s why we are here today, to make sure these leaders know, like [State Senator] Monique Limón — who I respect and admire — and [Congressmember] Salud Carbajal.”
In addition to applying pressure to local and state leaders — including the four members of city council who have voted against rent control — the speakers at Saturday’s rally encouraged tenants to form their own “tenant associations” with neighbors in order to inform themselves of their rights.
“I’m here to help you all realize just how much power you have,” said CAUSE organizer Wendy Santamaria. “Believe it or not, your landlord is afraid of you and your neighbors, and what they are most afraid of is you knowing your rights and exercising them.”
The City Council has traditionally been split on the issue of a rent cap, but with the state’s annual rent cap of 10 percent expected to expire, tenant advocates are hoping that Santa Barbara will pass its own local cap in the near future.
“After 2030 there’s no limit: They can raise it to anything they want,” Santamaria said. “So we are literally racing against the clock for us to implement a rent control cap here locally.”
For more resources on tenants rights, visit the Santa Barbara Tenants Union website.