In a city in which nearly 60 percent of residents rent, disputes between landlords and tenants aren’t unusual. Finding help to mediate those disputes in a way many people can afford is rare indeed, and that topic was at the heart of Santa Barbara’s budget discussions Monday. City Council members are mulling whether to make cuts to the municipality’s Rental Housing Mediation Task Force, which helps to mediate housing disputes outside of the court system.

The program gets its funding from Community Development Block Grants issued by the Housing and Urban Development Department. Santa Barbara was anticipating cuts this year, but the situation was worse than anyone expected on a local level, said Brian Bosse, the city’s housing and redevelopment director. Programs funded by the block grants will see double the cuts, and they may have up to 16 percent of their funding disappear.

That money currently goes to fund one full-time staffer and two part-time employees with the mediation task force. Fifteen volunteers also serve on the round table, and they help mediate disputes between landlords and tenants. It will require $55,000 of General Fund money to keep staffing at current levels. But that number is contingent on whether the city of Carpinteria and Santa Barbara County pitch in for their share of the services. Otherwise, the cost to the city’s General Fund will amount to $88,000.  The city of Goleta currently has their own mediation group.

Santa Barbara is weighing whether to reduce the staff to the full-time employee, who would provide information and limited mediation services. The task force would remain intact, but it would meet on an as-needed basis, instead of quarterly as it does now. The task force would also only tackle larger issues, like mass evictions.

Very few communities in California have a program like Santa Barbara’s, said City Administrator Jim Armstrong. Other task force programs rely on nonprofit organizations to back them.

“I didn’t believe this rose up to the level of taking General Fund money,” he said.

The task force conducts about 50 mediations a year, and charges an average of $400 per case, which the tenant and the landlord split. Councilman Randy Rowse recommended the group explore a sliding-fee scale for tenants.

Members and supporters of the task force came out en force Monday to stress the importance of what the agency does.

“The mediation task force deals with people who do not have the capacity to help themselves,” said Robert Burke, who serves on the task force.

PUEBLO executive director Mark Alvarado echoed Burke, and said his organization is willing to work with the city to keep the program alive.

Attorney Lynn Goebel said she volunteers her time with the mediation group, and recently helped for four hours, free of charge. In her practice, she typically charges $285 an hour, “whether I’m worth that or not,” she laughed.

Speaker Emily Allen said Santa Barbara was a leader in this type of service, and that “it economically makes sense.” If people stay housed, they are more likely to be working and productive, she said.

One suggestion came from Councilman Bendy White, who recommended that the stakeholders become more involved in funding the program. Big landlords and organizations, like the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, should be paying something into the program.

One vocal advocate of the program was Councilman Grant House, who, like White, said he’d like to see the private sector pitch in.

“I don’t see this as an optional program,’ he said. “We are a city of renters.”

The council ultimately agreed to revisit the issue in six months, and staff will bring back a detailed analysis about what it would take to staff an organization that would serve only the city, instead of the entire South Coast.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.