Stronger Relocation Rules Pushed for Displaced Tenants

In a rare display of political pulchritude, a group of tenants’
rights advocates gathered outside the County Administration Building
early Tuesday afternoon demanding that supervisors stiffen the rules
governing how much relocation assistance landlords have to provide
displaced renters and under what circumstances.

Under the county’s eight-year-old ordinance, landlords must provide
relocation assistance only when their tenants are forced out because
their homes have been deemed uninhabitable. Advocates with the Rental
Housing Roundtable—a coalition of tenants’ rights supporters—argued the
ordinance should be expanded to include renters forced to seek new
accommodations because of condo conversion, demolition, renovations,
and rezoning. When families are evicted, they must often double up
elsewhere, said Sharon Rose of Mobile Home Owners Coalition. “And
that’s really hard on the children,” she said.

By comparison, the City of Santa Barbara has an ordinance requiring
landlords to pay up to $5,000 to tenants forced to relocate because of
condo conversions or habitability problems. City housing officials said
they did not know how many times that ordinance has been used.

Organizers acknowledge the statistical record is sketchy but say
four mass evictions since 2002 have displaced no less than 300
families. In these instances, the tenants were evicted to allow for
renovations and improvements that enabled the landlords to charge
substantially higher rents. In one high-profile 2006 case, Isla Vista
families occupying 50 units were evicted to make way for luxury student
rentals. Almost always, the affected households are low-income, Latino,
and families.

Belen Seara, coalition spokesperson, said landlords should give
tenants enough money to cover the first month’s rent plus a security
deposit. County supervisors Salud Carbajal and Doreen Farr have
recommended the issue be referred to the county’s Housing director John
McInnes for further study.

Clouding the debate is the absence of reliable statistical
information. Under the existing ordinance, the landlords are supposed
to notify county housing officials whenever they serve an unlawful
detainer notice to evict tenants. Those records, charged Seara and
Carbajal, have not been kept. “You pass an ordinance, but if there’s no
oversight and follow up, it falls through the cracks,” Carbajal said.
McInnes, however, claimed otherwise, stating that some landlords have
complied with the law. Without such information, argued Leon Lunt of
the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, “There’s no basis to
suggest there’s even a problem.” Lunt suggested 5 to 8 percent of South
Coast rentals are currently vacant. Landlords are so desperate for
tenants, he said, they’re offering one-month rent free to renters
willing to sign a year-long lease.

“There may be rental units on the market,” countered Seara, “but
they’re not affordable. And that’s a big difference.” She cited the
situation of Estela Jaimes—on hand with her two-year old daughter—whose
family was one of 32 evicted from Modoc Road apartments last summer.
With three kids and an injured husband, Jaimes said, she’s moved twice
since being evicted. Even in today’s softer real estate market, she
said, rents for comparable accommodations are $300-$500 higher than her
Modoc Road home. To pay the first month’s rent and a security deposit,
she was forced to take out a loan. Seara said Jaimes’ experience is
hardly uncommon.

“It’s been a long time since I attended a gathering where so much
hyperbole and exaggeration was presented as the truth,” claimed Isla
Vista landlord Charles Eckert, who also conceded, “Even hyperbole and
exaggeration usually contains some kernel of truth.” To the extent
there’s a problem, he said, it was the fault of out-of-town real estate
investors who haven’t been “housebroken” yet. Eckert cautioned that
“too draconian” a solution might scare some landlords out of the rental
market altogether or inhibit others from making needed repairs.

The supervisors took no action Tuesday out of deference to Fifth
District Supervisor Joe Centeno, who could not be present. The matter
will be formally debated in August.

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