Last Stand at La Cumbre: Santa Barbara Tenants Fight Back Against Renoviction
One Family Tries to Win Right to Stay in Apartment While Property Owner Seeks to Renovate
By Ryan P. Cruz | March 16, 2023
Over on La Cumbre Road, just up from State Street, an aging, neglected 17-unit apartment complex has become ground zero in a battle between a 30-year tenant who refuses to leave and the building’s new owner, who wants to remodel and create luxury units in its place.
It is one of the more dramatic examples of how developers in Santa Barbara are pushing tenants out of their rental apartments and exacerbating the city’s already dwindling affordable units — a method so prevalent it has its own name: renoviction.
The apartments at 111 North La Cumbre Road were once a bustling community of families, but now the complex resembles a wasteland. Piles of trash line the crumbling carports; weeds crawl over walkways covered in broken glass. At night, transients break into the empty units, leaving behind their discarded drug paraphernalia.
For the past several months, the Espinoza family — the only tenants still occupying the building — have existed without a working refrigerator, gas, hot water, or outside lights. The electricity in their apartment gives the building its only light.
For the past three weeks, dozens of residents and housing advocates have packed city council meetings pleading for an end to renovictions. Under state law, it is completely legal for landlords to tell tenants to vacate units in order to make repairs and it is often used as a way to legally raise the rents.
The situation with the Espinoza family is “especially egregious,” but increasingly common, according to Stanley Tzankov, cofounder of the Santa Barbara Tenants Union, which has been pushing to ban renovictions.
“We are seeing whole buildings of people being displaced,” he said. He believes the city could pass tenant protections such as making renovictions only allowable for livability concerns.
“Renovictions are erasing the remains of affordable housing in the city,” said Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) organizer Wendy Santamaria.
Nowhere to Go
Norma Espinoza moved into apartment #17 more than three decades ago, in 1991, when she was only 17 years old. At the time, she moved in with other family members, but over the years, she became the unit’s primary tenant with her son, Bryan, and daughter, Jessica.
In the past few months, after receiving the notices from the new property owners, she said she lives in a constant state of fear, “always waiting for something bad to happen.” If she can’t stay at the apartment, she says she will likely have to move out of town to find a two-bedroom unit in the same price range.
Driven by Capital
The company that bought the apartments, Driven Capital Partners, was created by former professional soccer player Dan Kennedy and his partner Matt Shamus, who left his job at Facebook to pursue a career in real estate investing. The company also owns Mission and State Luxury Apartments. Both are managed by Sandpiper Property Management.
According to the company’s website, Shamus got his real estate license at the age of 20, “sold his childhood home for a tidy profit, and has been hooked on real estate investing ever since.”
During an interview on the We Love Real Estate Podcast with Sean Pan, Shamus said, “Santa Barbara has 2 percent vacancy in multifamily right now, and throughout California there’s a housing crisis. So, the opportunity that we saw was to purchase the property, convert it back into apartments, and then sell it to someone that wants to own apartments in downtown Santa Barbara. So that’s our intention for that property.”
On another podcast, The Best Ever Real Estate Investing Advice Show with Joe Fairless, Shamus describes one of his first property investing experiences, where he realized that owning and managing a property was more work than he had bargained for.
“Two weeks after we bought the house,” he said, “I was in Mexico, on vacation, getting a phone call from the tenant, saying that the toilet was backed up, the tub was backed up, and the house was in danger of starting to flood…. And I just kind of thought ‘Man, what have I gotten myself into here?’ ”
‘This is Bizarre’
Robert Forouzandeh, the attorney representing the property owners, maintains that the Espinoza family has not paid rent since November 2022, and they refuse to leave despite several notices given in June and August 2022 informing the tenants that they were to leave by
The property owners provided half of the relocation fee when they gave the tenants notice. When the apartment is vacated, the tenant receives the other half. All the other tenants in the building left without issue, he said.
The building was “dilapidated and destroyed,” Forounzandeh said, before being bought by Driven Capital, and the previous property owner did not complete any work.
In November 2022 the city issued a “stop work” notice at the property, in which the property owner was directed to “stop all work” until permits were issued, and to “clean up outside of structure and secure property from vagrants.” On February 10, a judge ruled that the property owners’ notice to the tenant was “missing some information” and denied the eviction order.
The property owners are now filing a new complaint, suing the family for the half of the relocation fee that the company says was never returned. Efforts to come to a settlement have also fallen apart at this time, with the tenants refusing any offers to vacate the unit.
“We got these people who won’t leave,” Forounzandeh said. “This is bizarre.”
‘The Worst Thing I’ve Gone Through’
Through this whole process, Bryan, 19, has acted as agent and translator for his mother. The day the property owner shut the lights off in the exterior of the apartments, January 17, he called the property manager who was dismissive but said he would put in a work order to address the lights. They have not been restored to this day.
Bryan helped his mother get assistance from the county Legal Aid Foundation, but even with the help of an attorney, he wears his anxiety across his face: “It’s honestly the worst thing I’ve gone through,” he says.
Bryan’s older sister, Jessica, recently moved out, but is also helping her family through this process, which for her has been indicative of a larger problem facing families of first-generation immigrants.
“It’s so bad that any day someone can just come for passive income and now 17 families are gone,” she said. “They’re not even taking care of it. It’s trashed; it’s disrespectful.”
Alex Entrekin, an attorney at Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara helping the Espinoza family, said this case is “about who has a right to live in Santa Barbara,” because renovictions heavily target communities that are paying lower rents.
Entrekin said the family was never officially offered a one-year lease, as mandated by the city’s Mandatory Lease ordinance. Every notice was sent to a name on the original 1991 lease, the lawyer said, although Norma had taken over as the primary month-to-month tenant years ago and the disputed check for relocation assistance was not made out to Norma or Bryan.
“It’s such an incredible indignity to say we’re going to evict you and not even name you,” Entrekin said. “Like they aren’t even people.”
Even if the property owners win in court, and the family is forced out, housing advocates say that the battle is proof that the tenants do have some power to fight landlords.
“This was just one family,” Entrekin said. “Imagine if it was all 17 units refusing to leave.”
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