There are groups of people in the community who work behind the scenes to do good for Isla Vista. These are the people you can go to for help with tenant/landlord issues, education, and parenting questions, or to find a place for your teen to hang out and do homework in a safe environment. These groups also include the religious organizations that provide meals for the homeless, support groups, and much more. Having direct contact with community members on a regular basis, the individuals who work for these organizations have an enhanced understanding of the issues and challenges facing the I.V. community.
When I sat down with Hilary Kleger, a community advisor who works with the I.V. Tenants Union, I was surprised by her unique insight. She talked about the dangers of blight, the work of other nonprofits, and the reasons that there is not an easy solution to the trash problem in I.V.
Kleger primarily deals with both students and non-students, but primarily renters, who come in with specific problems such as habitability, repair issues, or rent increases. A Tenants Union representative takes down information, and options are presented.
The Tenants Union is funded through a student-initiated fee collected as part of UCSB Associated Students fees. Even though the idea of a Tenants Union was first introduced in I.V. in 1970, the current reincarnation was created in response to the eviction of 36 Latino families from the Balboa, Colonial, and Cortez apartments in 1998. A group of students and evicted tenants banded together and voiced the need for a tenants union.
While the population of I.V. is often seen by outsiders as a homogeneous group, this is not the case. There are both students and non-students, and they are from a variety of different backgrounds, including many Latino residents. As in other communities, there are the rich, the middle class, and the poor. The Tenants Union is designed to serve the needs of all residents, even those who are not affiliated with UCSB. "It's a great service. A lot of students and community members don't know it exists," Kleger said.
When tenants come in with their particular problems, Kleger has a chance to get a snapshot of what is happening in the community. For example, a student came in to say she had signed a lease for a property that was in horrible disrepair when she showed up on move-in day. She had been told that the apartment would be fixed up before then, but it wasn't.
Kleger said that tenants can deal with these types of problems in a variety of ways. One way is to encourage other tenants to refuse to sign a lease with sub-par property owners. She explained that landlords who have difficulty finding good tenants might think twice about shoddy upkeep. Eventually, another eyesore will be transformed into something more attractive, and I.V. blight will be lessened.
If there is cause to believe that a group of tenants are having a particular problem with a landlord or property management firm, representatives from the Tenants Union might go door-to-door to suggest that residents band together to demand a resolution to the issue, Kleger said. This type of advocacy can empower residents to take control of their housing situation and can make I.V. a better place by holding landlords accountable.
Kleger also meets regularly with a group of individuals from community organizations, including the I.V. Foot Patrol, the Fire Department, Santa Barbara County Health Department, the Isla Vista Teen Center, and the Isla Vista Youth Project. Every month, members from these groups get together as part of the Isla Vista Community Network to talk about crime statistics, nutrition, and a variety of other local issues.
Eventually, I steered the conversation with Kleger to a discussion of the trash issues. We talked about the fact that some landlords have a clause in their lease relating to trash that requires tenants to clean up after themselves or pay a fine. However, she said these types of fines were hard to enforce. She had a tenant come into her office complaining that she was being held responsible for trash that was in front of her property but had come from somewhere else.
While there may not be easy answers to the challenges I.V. faces, such as trash, crime, or the homeless, at least there are people like Kleger out there identifying, categorizing, and analyzing the problems. With their influence, change can come.