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Santa Barbara News-Press: SB council tackles tenants’ rights, agrees to form committee to examine proposals; enhanced mediation OK’d

March 22, 2017
Santa Barbara, California – Published 3/22/2017
By Emily Leslie

Hundreds of local residents — renters and landlords alike — packed into Santa Barbara City Hall on Tuesday evening as the council took on the controversial task of shaping a tenants’ rights ordinance.

Public comment went on late into the night as more than 200 people put in their name to speak, with ordinance opponents donning “Housing For All” stickers on their shirts, while supporters held signs like “Stop the evictions!”

So many people attended the meeting that an extra television broadcasting the meeting was set up outside council chambers for those who couldn’t fit into the pews.

Per the council’s request in December, City Attorney Ariel Calonne came up with a spectrum of options for the council to consider. From least government intervention to most, as he put it, those options include: enhanced mediation, one-year mandatory leases, multiple-family rental unit safety inspections, just-cause eviction, and rent control.

The seven-member council unanimously voted to direct staff to come up with more information on enhancing its mediation program.

The council also voted 5-2, with Councilmen Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse opposed, to form a task force comprised of renters and landlords to further discuss the other options — except for rent control, which Councilman Gregg Hart said should be taken off the table.

Frank Rodriguez, organizer of local nonprofit Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy Santa Barbara, urged the council to take on this discussion after a series of “unjust” evictions — one of which took place over the holidays at Ivy Apartments in the Westside — raised concern that the working class is being pushed out of town, he said.

“How do we get the conversation going in which we provide some laws in the books that just allow for tenants to have a little more privilege to talk about their issues,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

He was backed by at least 50 renters who urged the council to consider protecting their rights.

Daraka Larimore-Hall, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, said the renter-landlord relationship is not equal as landlords wield more power.

“We need ordinances, we need law, we need government, we need the state, we need all these big bad institutions that protect people with less power from those with more power,” he said.

Even Santa Barbara City College President Anthony Beebe voiced support for the ordinance as many of his students are evicted on short notice or for no reason, and are then left looking for new housing, he said.

But many of the city’s landlords also turned out in strong numbers to voice their opposition to rent control, just-cause eviction and mandatory inspections as it imposes too much government oversight, they say.

“Keep your hands off my property!” said one landlord, Frank Cox, of the inspections, met with applause.

The California Apartment Association, the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors and Santa Barbara Radius Group also oppose an ordinance — particularly rent control and just-cause eviction.

“You have before you several options that will greatly interfere in the landlord-tenant relationship in a state where tenant right laws are some of the most progressive and aggressive in the nation,” Tommy Thompson, vice president of California Apartment Association, told the council.

If approved, these options would have a negative impact to the community, he said.

“These two options, though well-intentioned, do not improve communities but rather they ruin communities. They are bad ideas and have proven to be failed policies,” Mr. Thompson said.

In Santa Barbara, about 60 percent of the population is made up of renters and the residential vacancy rate is less than 1 percent.

According to the 2015 Housing Element report, the rate was about 0.6 percent in 2014. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a 5 percent vacancy rate sufficient to provide choice and mobility.

Further, nearly 92 percent of the city’s housing stock was built before 1990, according to the Housing Element report.

Since state law prohibits rent control on properties built after the mid-1990s, the vast majority of Santa Barbara’s properties would be affected, Mr. Calonne explained.

Santa Barbara has had a rental housing mediation program in place since 1975, which Mr. Calonne admitted is heavily used, but resources are limited.

The city has also had a tenant displacement assistance ordinance since 2006 to provide monetary relocation assistance for tenants displaced by discretionary or ministerial land use changes or real property improvements.

The city Fire Department has a multi-family inspection program, which Mr. Calonne said is not a detailed inspection. Rather, it’s to ensure fire detectors are in place.

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