by Kyle Lee / Deep Green Resistance Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is in a housing crisis, like many other cities in the United States. However, conditions are unique here because Santa Barbara is a popular vacation destination for people from all over the world, and it operates under a controlled growth scheme that puts a strain on the housing market, particularly on renters, who make up 60.2% of the residential population. Furthermore, the gross lack of regulation and accountability of rental property owners and minimal protections for tenants allows for the exploitation and manipulation of renters, particularly non-white families with children. In 2014, the number of homeless children in Santa Barbara’s K-12 school system was 2,215. The gentrification of the city and surrounding areas is evident in recurring mass evictions of predominantly Latino families being replaced with younger, white middle-class tenants who can more easily cope with the volatile housing market that has only a 0.5% vacancy rate. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a 5% vacancy rate sufficient to provide choice and mobility.
Ivy Apartment Homes, owned by Ventura Investment Co., a Camarillo-based real estate company, has been aggressively acquiring properties on the Westside, evicting many working-class immigrant families who have lived there for decades, and remodeling and remarketing the properties to attract “students and executives” to these now “upscale”, “premium” apartments. Barton Stern, the president of Ventura Investment Co., has been profiting off targeted gentrification since the 1990s. Another big name many local residents are familiar with is the slumlord Dario Pini, who is currently facing another series of investigations into the appalling conditions in which his tenants, half of whom are children, have to live. After local police and City Attorney, Ariel Colonne, issued Judge Jean Dandona’s warrant to search hundreds of units owned by Pini, Colonne had this to say, “When the public sees what the inspectors saw it will shock the conscience of the community.” If the local governments are unwilling to acknowledge tenants’ voices and produce material gains for tenants’ rights, it is time for the community to collectively stand together and demand positive change.
The current housing market is heavily in favor of property owners at the increasing expense of tenants: over the last decade, the average cost of rent has risen by 30% while income has increased by only 1%. This quote from a November 2016 investigation was included by the City Attorney’s Office in a staff report just released on March 21, 2017 titled Potential Strategies For Residential Tenant Protection Measures: “With Santa Barbara’s vacancy rate hovering at a historically low 0.5 percent, rent prices —already some of the highest in the country—have spiked another 20 percent. Over the past year, the average Santa Barbara studio rent increased from $1,090 to $1,391, the average one-bedroom jumped from $1,500 to $1,728, and the average two-bedroom went from $2,000 to $2,373, according to Steve Golis at the annual Radius Real Estate and Economic Forecast gathering late last month.”
The average price of rent for a two bedroom apartment is about 47% of the median household income. While it is often advised that no more than 30% of a household’s income should be spent on rent, over half of all Santa Barbara renters have to pay more than that, with 30% of local residents spending over half of their income on rent alone. Even if Santa Barbara had tenant protection laws criminalizing the eviction of tenants without just cause—called “no cause” evictions—the lack of regulation to control rent increases allows property owners to effectively choose when they want to evict their current residents and replace them with someone willing to pay more.
Also, because property owners don’t have to offer one-year leases or lease renewals to their tenants, many tenants have to worry every month if they are going to be evicted for any unjust reason—for example, the landlord wants to find a tenant who won’t complain about habitability issues in the apartment. Many people, including families with children who are in K-12 and younger, have to live in their cars, motels, or with friends or family while they try to figure out a very difficult situation that has suddenly been forced upon them. There is not enough subsidized housing; thousands of people on a waiting list that is often an estimated wait of up to 12 years. Obviously, this needs to be addressed a lot sooner than the current pace of affairs.
The Rental Housing Round Table (RHR) is a collective of many community organizations and individuals actively working to improve the material reality of the Santa Barbara community of renters. After mobilizing in 2008 to address the mass eviction of 37 families from Hillshore Gardens apartments, the group aided the passing of “County Wide Ordinance 4444, providing relocation assistance to tenants evicted due to renovation, rezoning, code violations and demolitions,” an ordinance that evicted families have successfully used to gain compensation. The RHR continues to “protect and encourage a diverse, inclusive and representative community of very-low to moderate income renters and the development of healthy and vital communities to ensure the expansion of the local and regional sustainable economy and improve the well-being of present and future generations.”
The RHR’s principles revolve around securing housing as a human right, protecting the diversity, economic stability, and health of the local and regional communities, building a vibrant collective of individuals, public entities, and private entities who are collectively responsible for their community, and seeking out the cooperation of government, landowners and property managers, major employers, educational institutions, and other entities to make it all a sustainable reality. From 2011-2012, the RHR had to help fight to keep the Rental Housing Mediation Task Force, which helps mediate issues between tenants and their landlords. According to the City Attorney’s staff report, “In Fiscal Year 2015-2016, the RHMP reported that it handled nearly 1,500 cases, 84% of which were initiated by tenants. Termination of tenancy was by far the predominant complaint, followed by habitability and repair, deposits and rent increases.” Between 2011 and 2015, the RHR developed a curriculum to educate tenants about their rights, which is continued by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).
Starting in 2015, a spike of evictions, especially on the West Side, has reignited the RHR to action. The group hosted a renters’ rights forum on July 21, 2016 at the Santa Barbara Central Library, which is where I first heard of them. Members of Deep Green Resistance Santa Barbara, including myself, have attended several of the RHR meetings since then. They also organized an event on September 22nd, 2016 at De La Guerra Plaza in coordination with the National Renters Day of Action to try to garner support for a tenants’ rights ordinance. Just a few days ago, on March 21st, 2017, tenants rights were on the agenda at the 6PM City Council meeting.
Local organizers associated with RHR and their allies put a lot of work into informing, mobilizing, and organizing tenants to share their stories and voices of support, particularly those most vulnerable, and all that work materialized into a crowd of dozens of tenants. The Council Chamber was overflowing to the point where many supporters had to huddle close around an overhead speaker or a TV broadcast to observe the meeting, where we waited for our turn to speak. The City Attorney presented the report he prepared as a neutral insight to inform the City Council on the background of the housing crisis as well as 5 possible measures to protect tenants’ rights: enhanced mediation, mandatory leases, multi-family rental unit inspections, “just cause” eviction, and rent control. The floor was then opened for public comments before the City Council would make any decisions.
Enhanced mediation is basically just an option that enhances what already exists, but does little to proactively address any of the problems. Mandatory leases are when landlords are required to offer a one-year lease to tenants to offer stability, but without a fixed rent price over the course of that lease, this measure is an opportunity for landlords to entrap tenants. The inspection of multi-family homes is absolutely necessary to ensure that tenants don’t have to settle for unsanitary, unsafe living conditions, and would reduce the cases where tenants are evicted for speaking out about uninhabitable rental units. Although the inspections come at a price for landlords, the City Attorney estimated these costs at $2 to $5 per unit per month, a negligible amount compared to the sky-high rent these landlords receive every month. “Just cause” eviction is a regulation that limits the allowable reasons a landlord can evict a tenant to a list of “just causes.” This prevents landlords from evicting at will, as they currently do, but still allows landlords to evict tenants for reasons such as violating the lease, criminal activity, failure to pay rent, and other valid reasons, but “just cause” eviction without a limit on how high landlords can increase rent means tenants can still effectively, if not technically, face eviction by being priced out of their home. That issue would be regulated with rent control, placing a limit on how much a landlord can increase the cost of rent by a certain percentage. Currently, any rent control legislation has to abide by the California Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which, even though it is up for repeal, still actively limits the flexibility of local governments to pass effective rent control legislation for their particular needs.
Depending on who you ask, Santa Barbara has very different needs. During the March 21st City Council meeting, Council Members asked and this is what Santa Barbara had to say:
The rental property owners all claimed to be “one of the good landlords” who never does anything wrong, yet furiously demanded less government regulation that inhibits them of doing such things as evicting tenants for whatever reason they choose, maintaining their units to whatever condition of habitability they please, and raising rent every month without limit, because government getting in the way of the “equal,” “symbiotic” tenant-landlord relationship “destroys communities” and is “unconstitutional.” Property owners said such things as, “keep your hands off my property,” and, “I don’t like to be told what to do,” even refusing to give up the microphone, and repeatedly being told to leave the podium. I was shocked and disgusted at this behavior, which gave a clear depiction of the entitlement and greed these property owners have, as you would expect from wealthy capitalists. They also claimed the data included in the City Attorney’s report that showed the need for legislation of tenants’ rights was incorrect, “it can’t be true,” and continued to make bold, unchecked claims and lies in self-defense. One landlord seriously expected the City Council to believe that she got into the rental business “not for money,” but because she “just loves houses.” The childish reactions and disingenuous rhetoric espoused by many of the landlords who showed up solidified my knowledge that there are far too many incapable, unethical, selfish landlords in Santa Barbara.
The realtors, investors and developers also used fear-mongering rhetoric to attack the proposals, spread disinformation, and said we need less regulation getting in the way of the “free market” and housing expansion because the only problem with housing in Santa Barbara is with supply. Lawyers and economists claimed the cost of city inspections at “$2 to $5 per unit per month, or more,” to be outrageous, the probable cost associated with tenants suing landlords after these ordinances give them more protections unreasonable, and of course that the “free market” to be fully capable of solving these problems on its own, even though minimally regulating the housing market is exactly what got us here. The good conduct of a few does not excuse the absence of accountability for all. Also, by their reasoning, if raw sewage went untreated and dumped in our waterways or poisoned water comes out the tap instead of potable water because the water treatment system had no regulations, I guess we should just let the market fix it and not let government get in the way of the private sector. Housing is a human right. Shelter is a basic need. The economy is not more important than our quality of life.
The Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees declared their support for the tenants’ rights ordinance, particularly the “just cause” eviction ordinance, because they acknowledged their experience witnessing the mass evictions of tenants on the West Side by rental property owners who seek to replace them with higher paying, higher density housing marketed to students. The Santa Barbara League of Women Voters commended the City Attorney for putting the report together in order to better protect tenants’ rights and declared their support for all 5 options in the report. Representatives from other local organizations like the California Democratic Party and United Way spoke in support of all 5 options and gave specific reasons why they would benefit Santa Barbara, especially the working-class communities who are being pushed out of their homes. Local residents who work in public service spoke of the difficulties the disabled community has securing rental properties.
Many tenants spoke of their particular experiences living in Santa Barbara, which varied from atrocious to alright. One single father described having to live in an apartment where the manager refused to do anything about black mold in his bathroom except paint over it. A single mother described her experience having to move 6 times in 10 years while putting her daughter through school; through her work with released prisoners in recovery, she knows people who would rather go back to jail than be homeless in Santa Barbara because they cannot afford to live anywhere. Unfortunately, because the meeting lasted late into the night, many of the tenants who showed up did not have a chance to speak because they had to leave before it was their turn.
Although most of the few tenants who disapproved of the proposed ordinances were also landlords themselves, there were a couple who were not landlords that either said they did not like the inspection ordinance for privacy reasons or did not approve of any of the ordinances because they did not personally feel at risk and have no sense of collective responsibility as part of a community. There were, however, multiple tenants who admitted that while they themselves are not facing a difficult housing situation, they empathize with those that are struggling, and that is why they support tenants’ rights. One man acknowledged the fact that even though he faces hardship, as a white man, his hardship is different from that of a Latino person in Santa Barbara, and though it isn’t his position to speak for them, brown people in Santa Barbara face a struggle that white people do not. On the other hand, many landlords became outraged and overly self-defensive when a tenants’ rights supporter in the audience held up a sign that read: “Stop Racism in the Housing Market.”
Our communities are being ripped apart and suppressed by our landlords, and many families are being forced into homelessness or pushed out of Santa Barbara altogether, yet the landlords who attended the meeting spoke as if we are one big happy family. There is already a clear split on this issue despite the words of realtors, rental property owners, and other capitalists that Santa Barbara is at risk of being polarized on this issue due to tenants seeking legislative protections. The polarization is already present because of the inherent disparity in the relationship between landlord and tenant, not because of people demanding to be treated like full human beings worthy of respect. The critical differences between landlords and tenants are an issue of property, financial independence, accountability, and privilege in many forms. One of the first discernible differences between the landlords and tenants that spoke during the meeting was that most of the landlords and other anti-tenants’ rights advocates spoke first because they either don’t have a day job or can get off early whereas most of the tenants could only sign up to speak after they got off work and therefore had to wait hours for their turn. Quite a few who did sign up had to wait so long they had to leave for various reasons before it was their turn, and many more didn’t even have the time to come and show their support, even though they desperately need these sort of protections against being exploited by their landlords.
Although renters make up the majority of residents, our voices pale in comparison to those with much more free time and money: the rental property owners, realtors, developers, economists and others who profit most from a system that inherently requires a hierarchical system of ownership and tenancy, of privilege and necessity, of power and homelessness. The intersecting class distinctions between landlords and tenants became clear throughout the public comment period: the landlords were mainly older, richer, white property owners who own multiple properties, who never once proposed a solution to hold their disgraceful peers accountable for what they are doing to communities in Santa Barbara, and who spent their wealth of free time to deny tenants their rights by reiterating inflammatory rhetoric and praising the sanctity of the “free market.” The tenants were mostly younger, poorer people predominantly of color who continue the struggle to find a safe, long-term place to live without fear of uninhabitable living conditions, being priced out of their homes, or being evicted outright. These tenants shared many different perspectives, including why the proposed ordinances are necessary to improve the housing situation they deal with firsthand, how and in what ways other cities have dealt with similar struggles, and why still more needs to be done in addition to these ordinances.
At around 11pm, the City Council shared their thoughts and passed two motions. The first motion was to start a staff investigation into the enhanced mediation option. The second motion, proposed by Gregg Hart, eliminated rent control as an option and put forward plans to create a task force comprised of property owners, tenants, and possibly a City Council Member to investigate the possible outcomes of a mandatory lease ordinance, “just cause” ordinance, and a multi-family unit inspection ordinance. I doubt that the task force will accurately represent the interests of those involved because of the constant “equality” rhetoric that got thrown around. The City Council Members, except for Cathy Murillo and Mayor Helene Schneider, stated that they are most concerned with the lack of housing supply and questioned whether local government should really get involved with the private sector. Murillo expressed disappointment with the removal of rent control from the discussion and the reluctance of the other Council Members to do anything besides put this issue off for later. For me, the most disappointing thing about the meeting is the fact that just getting the City Council to discuss these issues and address material solutions is actually considered a victory. It took a lot of hard work by community organizers to achieve it, but as it stands, our fate rests in the hands of 7 people, the majority of whom are just like most of the rental property owners: old, white men who have better things to do than to listen to your problems, talk about real solutions, and least of all interfere with their sacred “free market.”