Ethan Bertrand, board president of the Isla Vista Community Services District, faced verbal abuse and slurs at the hands of Gelb last year.
Paul Wellman

The Santa Barbara Police Department has been looking into a video showing a major Isla Vista landlord repeatedly shouting slurs and expletives at an openly gay Isla Vista elected official in downtown Santa Barbara Tuesday night. Police said they referred the case to the District Attorney’s Office.

On State Street at about 8 p.m., Ethan Bertrand ran into James Gelb, a well-known property owner in the oceanfront college town who recently put his $79 million portfolio of apartment complexes on the market. Last year, Bertrand was elected to Isla Vista’s Community Services District. He serves as I.V.’s unofficial mayor.

According to Bertrand, 21, he approached Gelb and said: “I think it’s a really good idea you are selling your I.V. properties.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the sixty-something man. Bertrand told him that he treats his tenants “very poorly.”

The exchange quickly escalated, and a friend of Bertrand’s pulled out his cell phone to videotape. The video clip begins with Gelb saying, “Fuck you. Just go fuck yourself. It’s none of your fucking business.” The video shows Bertrand taking a step away saying, “Have a good night,” while Gelb grew angrier: “What’s your net worth, you little fucker?”

The back-and-forth continued on the sidewalk; no one appeared to intervene. The confrontation did not turn physical, but Gelb almost lunged toward Bertrand at one point. He called him a “pussy” and looked back directly at the camera. Following him down the sidewalk, he yelled, “You walk like a fucking fag, and I know you are a fag.”

“Hey! I’m very proud to be gay,” Bertrand responded.

“You’re a fag. You’re a goddamn fag,” Gelb yelled.

“It’s great that you’re leaving the neighborhood,” Bertrand said. “Mr. Gelb, have a good day.”

“Fuck you; fuck you,” Gelb continued. “You’re telling me I treat my tenants bad? Fuck you,” adding, “Let’s see you butt fuck somebody.”

A woman in front of the Scientology church interjected, “Knock it off.” Gelb turned to her and said: “What do you think about homosexuals? What does Scientology think about fags fucking each other?”

After the incident, Bertrand said he was shaking all night. “I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick. It happened very quickly. The moment is a blur. Afterward, I was upset that a man with a lot of power treated me that way.” He said although Santa Barbara is a liberal/progressive community, hatred exists.

Gelb claimed in an interview Thursday that he was provoked because Bertrand initially called him a “pedophile.” “He called me a felon,” Gelb said. “I called him a fag, which he admitted he is. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Bertrand denied calling Gelb a pedophile, calling his defense “baseless.”

After the interview, Gelb sent the Santa Barbara Independent an email saying his brother died in 2004 after a 22-year battle with AIDS, and he still has a friendship with his partner. “While on the surface my anger may have been construed as homophobic I harbor no ill-will only love towards the gay community,” he wrote.

Gelb said his tenants have cruelly targeted him over the years. He said they spread false rumors that he installed cameras in the bathrooms of his properties. “It wouldn’t bother me so much, but it’s a felony.”

“Because I have a lot of money,” he added, “I never go into a unit without my female property manager.” (Several tenants have sued him over security deposit disputes, court records show.)

A private Facebook group titled “Texts from Gelb” has numerous photos of him wearing khaki pants and a light-colored shirt walking around Isla Vista. Many are unflattering shots taken from a distance; others are photos of him posing with college students. There are also screenshots of what purport to be text messages and emails from him using derogatory language. Cell-phone footage shows him screaming at a tenant at a front doorstep. More than 3,500 people are in the group.

Gelb claimed he has been frequently “set up,” including once when a young guy “blended in with the bush,” jumped out, and “scared the holy shit out of me.”

Asked why he thought many of his hundreds of tenants were out to get him, he said, “They are jealous. They are very jealous. I have real fancy, expensive cars. I go to Holdren’s five nights a week. I date young women in their twenties. I’m in my sixties.”

He added, “I am the fifth-largest landlord out there. I am there everyday. [My tenants] are under stricter conditions. I have a much higher profile and presence than anyone else out there.”

Gelb said his property portfolio — listed as 66 units with space for more than 500 students — is in escrow and should close by the end of the year. A student-housing conglomerate is the potential buyer, he said. He added that he is looking to invest in non-student housing in Seattle. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “I am fed up and stressed out. That’s why I am selling.”

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