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Local News

Rights of Displaced Renters Focus of Forum in Isla Vista

Thursday's event will center on county Ordinance 4444, on the books since 2002 but not enforced

Santa Barbara County renters and their rights when faced with eviction will be the central topic of a town-hall forum Thursday night in Isla Vista.

Organized by the Rental Housing Roundtable, the event will start at 6 p.m. at Isla Vista Elementary School, 6875 El Colegio Road.

Belen Seara, executive director of PUEBLO and a member of the Rental Housing Roundtable, said the event will center on a policy that has been on the county’s books for more than eight years but has not been enforced. County Ordinance 4444, implemented in 2002, states that landlords needing to improve properties with code violations are required to financially reimburse displaced tenants.

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.

The ordinance, in theory, is supposed to encourage owners to keep their properties in habitable condition, in addition to helping the displaced renters financially.

It states that a rapid reduction in the supply of rental housing for low- and moderate-income residents occurred at the time the ordinance was enacted. Rental housing had been historically low, making it difficult to find affordable rentals in the first place.

Several units were found with severe code violations, so much so that residents’ safety would be threatened if they stayed, according to the ordinance.

If landlords don’t comply with the terms of the ordinance, it constitutes an infraction, but a fine of only $50 is required for each violation.

Seara said the ordinance is rarely enforced and should be expanded to include tenants displaced not only because of code violations, but also for condo conversions, rezoning or renovations.

Why hasn’t it been enforced?

“That’s a good question, and that’s why we’re having a town hall,” Seara said, adding that getting information about why such laws are passed and who is going to be accountable is key. “We are hoping to get a good answer.”

Supervisors Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf were invited to Thursday’s discussion, as were Goleta City Council members Margaret Connell and Ed Easton. Seara said the event will give officials a chance to hear the testimonies of tenants in the county’s unincorporated areas who have been affected by the ordinance.

Noozhawk put in calls to David Matson, director of Housing and Community Development for Santa Barbara County, to ask about the county’s record of enforcement, but was unable to reach him.

The Rental Housing Roundtable started working on amendments to the ordinance last year, and a staff report from the county Housing and Community Development Department, the result of about 20 meetings with stakeholders, is expected to come out this week.

Seara said a mass eviction, which can mean up to 30 families displaced from one location, can end up displacing hundreds of people, such as the eviction in 2008 from Modoc Road. She said evictions on that scale haven’t occurred since 2008, but that a small number of individual evictions continue to occur.

Families are usually given 30 days, sometimes 90, to find new housing, Seara said, which can be “extremely hard for low-income families” given the amount of available rentals on the South Coast.

A case in Santa Maria has 30 residents of a mobile home community, as well as residents from an apartment complex, on the edge of eviction, Seara said.

“What we are asking is that landlords also share the social and financial costs of displacement,” she said.

She said that usually evictions are permanent. As landlords upgrade the dwellings, prices are often raised, and the original tenants are priced out of the market for those particular spaces.

But not everyone agrees with Seara.

Charles Eckert, executive director of the Executive Committee of the Isla Vista Property Owners Association, said that there’s no reason to say the county ordinance hasn’t been enforced. He said he’s negotiated with groups such as Seara’s before.

“Their complaint is not that the ordinance isn’t enforced,” he said. “They want an ordinance that will require the property owner to subsidize the renter almost any time the renter has to move and it’s not of their own volition.”

Eckert said landlords would have to include the price of displacement in their overall cost of doing business, which ultimately could drive up rental costs.

“You don’t solve that problem by penalizing the property owner who wants to bring the property up to code,” he said.

In almost all instances, the evictions occur because the property owner wants to do a lot of work, according to Eckert. Providing an incentive, including fast-tracking the owner’s building permit, could be one solution to get the property owner to do things such as give an early refund on a security deposit, he said.

In comparison, the city of Santa Barbara has had a tenant displacement ordinance on the books since 2006, and city planner Bettie Weiss said the city enforces it consistently on all applicable projects.

The city ordinance applies when an application is filed with the city for a demolition, alteration or change of use that will result in the elimination of residential unit. Owners must notify the tenants on the property and file a notice of intent with the city, which explains that the tenants are entitled to four times the median advertised rental rate, or $5,000, whichever is greater.

Residents with special needs are eligible for higher compensation.

The ordinance goes on to say that the notice must be delivered to every tenant on the property at least 60 days before the application is filed, and that it won’t be complete until then.

“This is a fairly new program for us, so we did a fair amount of outreach and explanation to the community about it — we follow it,” Wiess said.

However, she said the one big area of exception the city ran into once the program was implemented was enforcement of the policy on illegal units, which the city attorney said doesn’t apply in those cases.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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