Santa Barbara to Consider Rent-Regulation Measures Amid Increasing Rates, Low Vacancy

Sunday, March 19, 2017
Sam Goldman

As rental rates climb and the vacancy rate bottoms out, the City of Santa Barbara will consider a number of measures for a potential rent-regulation ordinance. On the table at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting will be rent control, just-cause evictions, mandatory leases, safety inspections for multifamily residential buildings and enhanced tenant-landlord mediation resources. While an ordinance will not be considered at the meeting, it will be the council’s opportunity to provide city staff policy direction on how to craft new regulations — assuming the council still wants to pursue rent-control measures. Late last year, the council asked the City Attorney’s office to bring it a menu of tenant-protection options. The results of that research revealed a vacancy rate at a historically low 0.5 percent, recent mass evictions and rentals making up just about 60 percent of occupied housing units in the city. City Attorney Ariel Calonne in his staff report concluded that, with 92 percent of city housing stock dating back to before 1990, “lack of maintenance can discourage reinvestment, and can result in depressed neighborhood property values and reduced quality of life in the community.” The city’s chief vehicle for tenant-landlord arbitration is its Rental Housing Mediation Program. The options Calonne put together for a potential rent-control package included one that would enhance those types of mediation resources. According to the program, 84 percent of its 1,500 cases from the last fiscal year were brought to it by tenants, with termination of their tenancies the chief concern. Tenants and landlords also went to the program for habitability and repair concerns, issues with deposits and rent increases. Two-thirds of cases involved tenants whose incomes were less than half of the median family income, which the Census Bureau reports as $63,985; 43 percent of tenants who utilized the program had incomes 30 percent or less of MFI. A mandatory lease requirement would mean landlords would have to offer tenants leases of a minimum amount of time, often a year. According to Calonne’s report, health and safety inspections in other cities typically range from annually to every three to five years, and can be financed by fees charged to property owners. Just-cause eviction rules, popular with tenants’ groups, bar landlords from evicting their residents without a specific reason, such as failing to pay rent, breaking the law or the need to make considerable repairs. Rent control would limit or restrict how much landlords can charge their tenants and when they can raise rates. Lucas Zucker, the policy and communications director at CAUSE, a social and economic justice organization, said there are more than 200 no-cause evictions in Santa Barbara each year. He said a recent CAUSE report found that inflation-adjusted rents have gone up 30 percent over the last decade, while real median household income rose by 1 percent. “There’s a housing crisis in the city, and we need our city leaders to address it,” he said. A just-cause evictions rule would “stop the bleeding” of evictions in the city, Zucker said, but argued it should be combined with the inspections and rent control. “We’re supportive of all three because we really see them as going together,” he said. “If you create eviction protections without creating any kind of rent stabilization, then landlords can just raise the rents enough to effectively evict families anyway.” Health and safety inspections would deter landlords from letting their properties deteriorate enough to harm or drive out families, Zucker added. Rent-regulation opponents argue that in communities that suffer from a housing crunch, like Santa Barbara, more housing is the solution. “Many economists agree that the answer to the housing crisis is more supply due to the high demand and not additional restrictions to the market,” the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors wrote in a letter earlier this month to Calonne. Inspections may violate the constitutional principle barring unreasonable searches and seizures; just-cause evictions can be costly affairs for landlords, who pass on their costs to good tenants; and rent caps limit the money available for repairs and investment in new housing stock, SBAOR wrote. On Monday evening, the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association is hosting a town hall meeting at The Fess Parker, 633 E. Cabrillo Blvd., to find out its members’ concerns, SBRPA executive director Laura Bode said. She added that SBRPA met with CAUSE on Wednesday to hear its concerns. “What we’re trying to do is all work together,” Bode said, noting that the rental property owners’ organization would not have a position to state on the rent-regulation proposals until after Monday’s meeting. The City Council will be discussing the matter at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.

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