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Local News

Supervisors Order County Staff to Draft New Tenant-Rights Ordinance

The board meeting draws a crowd with mass evictions the focus of recommendations concerning tenant/landlord rights and responsibilities

Scores of tenant-rights advocates and other community supporters showed up at Tuesday’s Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting calling for a new ordinance protecting tenant rights and describing landlord responsibilities — particularly with regard to mass evictions.

The supervisors voted 3-0, with two abstentions, to direct county staff to create a draft of a new ordinance.

In Santa Barbara County, there have been six mass evictions since 2005, with two of them — the so-called Del Playa Nine and the Cedarwood Apartments — occurring in densely populated Isla Vista. During the late 1990s, as the county experienced the simultaneous trends of increasing population, rising prices and decreasing availability of rental housing, the mass eviction of tenants from the Balboa Cortez Apartments in Isla Vista prompted the county to enact a law — dubbed Ordinance 4444 — in 2002 to add a few extra steps to state law governing the rights and duties of landlords and tenants.

But in 2004, when scores of students were evicted from the Del Playa Nine after the county condemned several oceanfront lots because of heavy erosion, landlords refused to pay for relocation expenses. Many students reported having to sleep on friends’ couches and scrambling to find places to stash their belongings during finals week.

“In a lot of ways, the county did help, but they didn’t have the authority to enforce anything,” said Kelly Wells, an undergraduate student at the time, adding that she and others in similar situations were caught between the landlords — who were fighting the condemnations and refused to cancel the leases — and county officials ready to issue fines for noncompliance.

Wells said landlords repaid them only for their lost deposits and rent money — which for her amounted to $2,000 — after she went public with the problem, speaking about it on a local TV news program.

“This proposal is not radical, it’s practical,” she said of the county staff’s recent set of recommendations.

County staff’s new report, an effort to expand on and reinforce the old ordinance, was handed to the supervisors on Friday. Included in the report were identifications of key problem areas in the existing ordinance, honing in on mass evictions in particular. Citing a dearth of affordable housing and a lack of understanding among tenants and landlords of their rights and requirements, the report called for policy changes, possible county funding and cooperation with community groups in order to hash out an ordinance to better cover the needs of tenants and landlords.

“When I read this report, I said, ‘Wow! This is one of the best reports to come out of staff,’” said Charles Eckert, president of the Isla Vista Property Owners Association and a representative of Isla Vista’s apartment rental business.

Increasing the eviction notice requirement from 60 to 90 days was suggested by staff, as well as giving full early deposit refunds and a $500 relocation fee to tenants evicted en masse during cases of major building renovations or condominium conversions.

Eckert suggested that the county could add an incentive for evicted tenant assistance by offering a fast-tracked development permitting process for participants. He said there’s really no reason for landlords to withhold any of a tenant’s security deposit if people are being evicted for renovations.

From community activists to individuals, public comment Tuesday was overwhelmingly in favor of heeding the report’s recommendations and beefing up the existing ordinance. Many were members of the Isla Vista Tenants Union, and others represented various other groups, citing a commitment to avoiding a repeat of Conquest Properties’ August 2006 eviction of 55 families, most of which were reportedly poor and Hispanic.

Similar problems have been encountered in Santa Maria. Through a Spanish-language translator, Santa Maria resident Isaac Catalan told of his family’s eviction last year, which forced them to place all of their belongings in a truck. Catalan recalled his daughter asking if they would have to live under a bridge.

“At that moment, I stayed silent because we didn’t have an answer,” Catalan said. “We had a friend who let us stay in his living room, but we had to come in very late at night and get out by 6 a.m. so that he wouldn’t have trouble with his manager. We were very lucky to have a friend like that, or we would have had to sleep in the truck or in the street.”

Educational advocates also were on hand Tuesday, and they described the impact that homelessness — even when temporary — and relocation have on the performance of students and workers. Catalan reported having to move his four children to three schools during the past year.

Citing a lack of information, Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray and Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno abstained from voting on the motion to direct staff to turn the report into a draft ordinance.

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, on the other hand, said she had already read the report since receiving it last Friday.

“This is not Washington, D.C. — we read our information,” First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said, amid chuckles from around the room.

County staff members said they will need about two months to draft an ordinance.

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

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