Eviction is a dreaded word in any renter’s vocabulary. Put it on a scale where 30 or more families lose their homes, and eviction becomes that much more frightening. Combating mass eviction and helping renters transition to new housing was the focus of a decision Tuesday from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, which approved a revised ordinance adding more protections for renters.
Changes were approved for county Ordinance 4444, which has been on the books since 2002 but is seldom enforced. The ordinance states that landlords needing to improve properties with code violations are required to financially reimburse displaced tenants. Changes to the ordinance were approved 4-0, with Supervisor Joe Centeno absent.
Ordinance 4444 was created out of a desire to motivate owners to keep their properties in habitable condition, and provides relocation assistance only if the tenant is displaced as a result of a health and safety violation. That assistance has been expanded, but not every displaced renter meets the criteria. Now, the ordinance applies only to buildings of four or more units, and least 10 percent of those tenants must be relocating because a landlord is either demolishing, remodeling or changing the land use of the property.
As an incentive to comply, landlords would be eligible for “fast-tracked” permitting by the county’s Department of Planning and Development, if the property owner can demonstrate that he or she has provided tenants with a timely security deposit return and advance notice of 90 days, as well as the relocation benefits.
The ordinance provides for a sum equal to three months of fair-market rent, which is determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Utility service deposits also are covered, and none of those amounts changed under the new ordinance. The changes also apply to new leases entered into after April 2011.
Most of the public speakers who spoke Tuesday supported the amendments, and even said that they didn’t go far enough.
Joyce Howerton, of the Santa Barbara County Action Network and a member of the Rental Housing Roundtable, supported the amendments, but she urged the supervisors to keep relocated tenants in the same community. She recommended that tenants be relocated within a mile of their previous home.
“This is important to minimize disruption to the family,” she said, adding that evicted children should stay in the same school district and people who lack car transportation need to get to work.
Charles Eckert, president of the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, also supported the ordinance, saying it effectively deals with mass evictions. He did express concern, however, about language in the ordinance that allows groups to bring forward lawsuits.
Belen Seara, of PUEBLO and co-chairwoman of the Rental Housing Roundtable, conjured up the chaos that the Modoc evictions brought to families in 2008.
“Ninety children were left wondering, ‘Why us?’” she said.
Many displaced families are in danger of becoming homeless, and several of the Modoc tenants are still dealing with the repercussions of the 2008 evictions.
Though the county didn’t have translators available for Spanish-speaking commenters, Maria Patricia Flores was able to speak via another public commenter. Flores explained that she had lived in Isla Vista for 24 years and was evicted from her apartment in 2006. Because of her eviction, Flores had to live at a student co-op for two months, where she lived with six other people in one bedroom. She said her children had to live with friends during that time, and missed school, causing their grades to drop.
“I couldn’t give them an answer to their questions or explain everything that was happening,” she said.
Felipe Flores of the ACLU of Santa Barbara County spoke about the Cedarwood evictions in 2006.
“I saw people whose entire lives were disrupted,” he said, adding that he was with the families in court. “It was truly heartbreaking to see that there was no legal recourse.”
Mickey Flacks, also on the Rental Housing Roundtable, argued that the ordinance should cover all tenants, even single units.
“They need help when they are thrown into today’s type rental market,” she said.
As a landlord of a duplex, Flacks said such a requirement wouldn’t be burdensome to her.
County Supervisor Doreen Farr suggested several changes to the ordinance after public comment ended. She discussed the distance that tenants could be relocated from their original home, saying that five miles was appropriate and that the ordinance would apply countywide, not just in dense Isla Vista, and a one-mile radius in certain areas isn’t feasible. Tenants can waive that distance if nothing is available in the area.
The county also struck language that would levy fees on landlords who don’t comply, and that language was added back at Farr’s request. Though he had to leave before a vote was taken, Centeno also spoke up, saying that when the ordinance changes come back before the board, he would like to see more crackdowns on renters who intentionally destroy their units. Though a tenant who intentionally destroys property wouldn’t qualify for the payments, Centeno asked that the statute go further, perhaps with a fine.