Members of the Chicago Union of Tenants read a message from Isla Vista tenants at Core Spaces headquarters. | Courtesy

Isla Vista landlord Core Spaces has hired new attorneys — Thyne Taylor Fox Howard of Santa Barbara — to help it manage the eviction of nearly 1,000 tenants, a set of evictions so massive it caused an uproar in Santa Barbara County, and the Board of Supervisors passed a law against “renovictions” on April 6. The tenants were back on Tuesday, thanking the supervisors for their action and letting them know of the need for more, while another tenant union took the message directly to Core Spaces headquarters in Chicago last Friday.

For Core Spaces, Isla Vista is said to be the first wide-scale tenant protest across the 46 buildings in 29 college towns that it has bought, cleared out, renovated, and leased as “luxury” apartments during the past decade. The company often has a real estate investment partner in its deals and has presented the renovation in the best light to the press. Core Spaces officials have said the building renovations at CBC & The Sweeps — which were built in the 1960s — are an improvement for Isla Vista, which is next door to UC Santa Barbara. They said they did not know so many families and children lived there, nor were they aware of Santa Barbara’s housing crisis. They were conforming with the county ordinance and offering the greater of three months of rent to relocate, or $7,000, without having yet pulled permits.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, the speakers testified not to the carrots Core Spaces was offering but the sticks the company was wielding, such as pressuring a mentally disabled person into signing onto relocation and causing confusion about the relevance of the county’s new renoviction ordinance.

A case worker with Good Samaritan Shelter — a nonprofit based in Lompoc that helps homeless people find housing — told the supervisors that her client moved into the Isla Vista apartments on a Section 8 voucher, only to receive a notice to vacate two days later. Instead of stabilizing her clients in their new homes, Ellie Rizlenjani said, she had to reassure them they weren’t going back to the streets or a shelter.

“Instead of building them up, I have to take them down from the intimidation tactics they’ve experienced from Core management,” she said. Another client had a severe mental disability; this individual had been “coerced into signing something he did not understand while the Core dangled a $7,000 relocation check in his face.”

The Response

The tenants spoke during public comment, a portion of the day’s hearing when people present topics not on the day’s agenda — and though the supervisors are listening, the rules of order do not allow them to take action. Nonetheless, the supervisors spoke to the issue, applying a little pressure of their own on Core Spaces.

Supervisor Das Williams, who grew up in Isla Vista, let the audience know that the supes’ Legislative Committee was supporting State Senator Maria Elena Durazo’s bill that would require landlords to allow renovicted tenants to return at the same rent. Supervisor Joan Hartmann, herself an attorney, asked that if incorrect information were being peddled, could the county look into countering it with correct information?

And later that day, Supervisor Laura Capps, who was instrumental to achieving the new ordinance, sent a letter to state and federal legislators advising them of potential violations of fair housing, tenant protection, and civil rights acts in Core Spaces’ lease terminations.

The Local Lawyers

A Core Spaces spokesperson said they’d hired the Thyne law firm “to further build our relationships within the community.” For tenants looking for housing, what could matter are John J. Thyne III’s extensive connections in the real estate world. Thyne’s partner Lacy Taylor offered that they’d checked for available housing with some landlords and found 30 units near City College. They hadn’t placed anyone yet, she said, in part because they have yet to reach many tenants. Very few were contacting them. “I don’t know how to fix that,” Taylor said, “but it is not my goal to make everyone homeless.”

Taylor denied any intimidation tactics were being used, countering that Sweeps employees were being harassed. What Thyne’s group had done was post bilingual notices to let tenants know they wanted to work with them: “We want to give them time, if time is what they need, or to help them locate alternative housing,” Taylor explained. But the letter also required the tenants to comply with the Notice to Vacate they’d received, either by mid-May, the end of their lease, or a negotiated time.

“It is not our intention to file a single unlawful detainer,” Taylor stated, which is step two in the eviction process. Though the conversation made it clear they hoped to provide every accommodation, the attorneys were not going to give up the ability to file unlawful detainer actions if it became necessary.

The Core Spaces spokesperson clarified that once permits were filed and “all other requirements under the ordinance have been met,” unlawful detainers may be filed. “However, it is Core’s goal to assist the residents in every possible way and avoid unnecessary litigation,” she said.

Shades of Gray

For Taylor, the new April 6 ordinance was a “gray area” when it came to the ongoing eviction. The shades of gray concern the multiple steps of the eviction procedure: first a Notice to Vacate in 60 days, then an unlawful detainer, court appearance, and finally a sheriff’s knock on the door if the court allows the unlawful detainer.

While the notices to vacate were served before the new ordinance took effect, the 60 days don’t expire until mid-May, which is the earliest any unlawful detainer could be served. Taylor made clear that the notices were legal as the law existed at the time and that is what their letters stated.

The law is much less gray to Legal Aid, a nonprofit that represents some of the tenants; Taylor said she’d already sparred with them over the issue.

Nor is it gray for County Counsel Rachel Van Mullem, whose office wrote the new ordinance language. In an email, Van Mullem iterated the April 6 ordinance required “landlords terminating tenancies for a substantial remodel to obtain all necessary permits to carry out the work prior to serving tenants with written notice terminating tenancy and in any unlawful detainer action initiated after the effective date of this urgency ordinance.”

Van Mullem wrote, “The goal of the Urgency Ordinance on Just Cause for Residential Evictions is to put in place additional protection for tenants when a tenancy is terminated based on a stated need to undertake substantial renovations,” adding that the effect for specific tenants depended on circumstances and facts.

Tenant Protections

“Substantial renovations” is the wording in the state’s Tenant Protection Act that landlords have used to kick tenants out, sometimes under a pretense of fixing up buildings. In the case of the Sweeps, Taylor was told Core Spaces had permits for windows and roof replacements. A check of the Planning Department’s public permit portal disclosed no such permits, and County Planning confirmed on Tuesday that no permit application has been submitted.

Stanley Tzankov, a cofounder of the Santa Barbara Tenants Union, told the county supervisors on Tuesday morning that the company might not have permits now, but eventually it would. He was part of a group urging a renoviction moratorium until vacancy levels rose and to strengthen the just-cause eviction rules with a “common sense” policy of allowing folks to return at the same rate after the renovation.

Core Space’s disinformation was causing self-evictions, Tzankov later said: “Tenants are hearing from an authority figure, people who have power over their housing, and tenants pack up and believe the law doesn’t apply to them.” And when tenants moved, they paid market-rate rents. Many tenants had lived at the Sweeps for a number of years, he said: “Even $100 or $200 more in rent can make a difference for a lot of people.” Not only that, but the aging units were by default some of the more affordable apartments available during a period of an alarmingly low vacancy rate.

The pressure came home to the landlord’s headquarters in Chicago last Friday, when the Chicago Union of Tenants held a solidarity demonstration in Core Spaces’ lobby: “This is the voice of approximately 1,000 human beings you are mass evicting in Santa Barbara!” said a man, loudly reading a statement from the Isla Vista group as an employee tried to shepherd the small group away. “Why is profit more important than people staying housed? How does it feel to know you will make many of us homeless? How many of you are willing to look us in the eyes and explain to us the intention behind your actions?”

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