Supervisors Laura Capps and Das Williams | Credit: Courtesy

For the second time in less than a month, Santa Barbara government leaders responded with lightning speed to city and county residents pleading for an end to “renovictions” — the practice of landlords evicting rental tenants under the guise of renovations in order to hike rent prices. On Thursday, the County Board of Supervisors followed the City of Santa Barbara’s lead and passed an emergency ordinance tightening up the eviction code and making it much tougher for landlords to displace tenants.

On March 21, Santa Barbara City Council passed amendments to the city’s eviction code after dedicated residents and tenant advocates packed City Hall week after week, telling their own experiences with renovictions, in what was an impressive example of community engagement leading to actual change in the law in just a few short weeks.

Not to be outdone, after hearing about more than 550 Isla Vista residents evicted by Chicago-based developer Core Spaces on March 16, and after residents flooded the county with public comments Tuesday asking for the same protections in the county’s eviction code, the Board of Supervisors declared a “Code Red” and announced a special meeting for April 6, at which the county would consider making similar changes as the city, requiring landlords to demonstrate “good faith” and provide much higher standard of proof — including all necessary permits — when asking tenants to vacate a property.

Supervisor Laura Capps, who represents Isla Vista, requested the special meeting along with Supervisor Das Williams. Capps has not only been vocal about her support for the residents of the apartment complex — called CBC & the Sweeps — she went with her office’s staffers to knock on every door at the 234-unit complex a week after the tenants received eviction notices.

Legal Aid’s Jennifer Smith described the eviction amendments to the ordinance that her nonprofit had offered to the county, which were adopted.

There she met working-class Latino families, some with several generations all under one roof, overstressed students, and residents who had no idea if they would be able to find another affordable rental. The situation is indicative of Santa Barbara’s extreme housing crisis, Capps said, where one of the largest mass evictions in the state can happen in our own backyard, and where the average price of one- and two-bedroom apartments is among the highest in the country.

“This is a lot more than just about one housing complex,” Capps said. “This is about the rents here in Santa Barbara, which we know are the highest across the country for any small city.” 

Capps said that rents have “more than doubled” in Santa Barbara the last two decades, and that stricter language in the Just Cause eviction code would close loopholes used by “out of state” and “out of touch” landlords. Most of all, the changes would protect the people that needed help most, and those who had poured their hearts out to the supervisors during the April 4 board meeting.

“Those of you that showed up two days ago gave the most powerful public comment that I’ve experienced in my time of public service,” Capps said at Thursday’s hearing.

Supervisor Joan Hartmann said that the trend is something “radically different” than what was seen in the past, and that “private gains” have led to “tremendous socialized costs” in the community. 

Supervisor Williams said he was “deeply disturbed” by a meeting he had with a real-estate investor, who confided that the extreme housing crunch in Santa Barbara — with a vacancy rate at less than one percent and a severe lack of affordable housing — was also the fault of county leadership, who through a history of slow-growth have created a perfect situation that allows investors to “take advantage of the system and squeeze people out.”

Willams was set on getting the ordinance changes approved and effective immediately, saying it would send a strong signal to corporate landlords that the county would “defend tenants’ ability to stay within their homes,” and at the very least would slow down the alarming trend of renovictions.

“If I’m reduced to being a speed bump in the path of corporate greed,” Supervisor Williams said, “then I am going to be the most inconvenient, spikey, rough, broken, totopo-like, tire-damaging speed bump that I can be.”

Nearly 50 members of the public spoke during the emergency meeting Thursday, with the overwhelming majority in favor of the tenant protections.

CBC & the Sweeps apartments in Isla Vista | Credit: Anika Duncan

Supporters included tenants from CBC & the Sweeps, education workers, and representatives from the Lompoc chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Santa Barbara Tenants Union, Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), Showing Up For Racial Justice Santa Barbara (SURJ), Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), and Habitat for Humanity.

A few asked for minor changes to the emergency ordinance, asking that the Board of Supervisors not include smaller property owners with corporate developers because it could discourage “mom-and-pop” landlords with one to four units from fixing their properties.

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Several of the supervisors said they were personally touched by the comments of the tenants currently facing eviction in Isla Vista, including students who may have to forego their graduation without a place to live, and one single mother, Areli Vasquez-Jimenez, who fought through tears while sharing her story.

“We need your help,” Vasques-Jimenez said, her voice cracking. “Imagine this was your family. Imagine you were in our situation. These people, these people don’t care about us; all they care about is making money.”

There were several questions about whether the ordinance, if passed and made effective immediately, would provide relief to the hundreds of tenants in Isla Vista who already received notices to vacate.

According to Kate Darnaby, a representative from Core Spaces, the company sent brand-new notices to every tenant on April 4, “outlining the tenancy termination dates and relocation benefits.” The end dates for tenancy were extended to four months from two, and relocation benefits were promised for the larger of three months of rent or $7,000.

“We’re finalizing the scope of work with our general contractor, and we’ll be applying for the permits in the coming weeks,” Darnaby told the Independent. The work included roof replacements, electrical panels and window work, water damage repairs, and critical maintenance, she said. “The reason we sent our notices before applying for permits was to give residents as much time as possible to find alternative housing.”

The Legal Aid Foundation sent a letter to the supervisors prior to the meeting with additions that would address these questions, essentially adding language to the ordinance that specified that the changes would apply to all “unlawful detainers.”

“Because tenants have already received notices, we just wanted to make sure that the urgency ordinance would apply to the subsequent unlawful detainers if they are filed,” said Legal Aid Foundation Executive Director Jennifer Smith.

Supervisor staffers Jordan Killebrew (left) and Spencer Brandt huddle with County Counsel Rachel Van Mullem during the hearing. | Credit: Courtesy

County Counsel Rachel Van Mullem elaborated on the amendments suggested by Legal Aid. While she couldn’t specifically say whether the ordinance amendments would affect the notices served at CBC & the Sweeps, because that case was “facts specific,” she explained the added Legal Aid language would protect tenants from future actions. For instance, if tenants remained despite the 60-day notice to vacate and the property owner was forced to initiate an unlawful detainer, which generally leads to a court order of removal, the landlord would now be held to the new higher standards of proof. Those now include a “good faith” intent to possess the units for a total demolition or substantial remodel, with early tenant notice; permits in hand before evicting tenants; and notice to tenants of why they cannot stay in place, a description of the work, and copies of the permits.

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who ended up being the swing vote in the 4-1 decision (an urgency ordinance requires four out of five votes in order to be effective immediately and indefinitely), commended county counsel for a “record turnaround” on the ordinance, and said that he was also touched by the “soul-crushing” testimony from the public.

Supervisor Bob Nelson was the only member of the board who spoke in opposition to the urgency ordinance, saying that he preferred to approve a temporary ordinance with a determined end date so they could look into any “unintended effects” of the ordinance before making it permanent. He said he couldn’t support an indefinite ordinance, but he had to leave the emergency meeting before the vote was held.

With a unanimous vote from the four supervisors present, the board approved the changes to the county code for Just Cause residential evictions — along with all amendments suggested by the Legal Aid Foundation — effective immediately.

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