Supervisors amend county code to better protect renters

Toni Leon told the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors that she had an eviction notice taped to the front door of her apartment on March 16.

During the last few months, Leon said, she’s been looking for alternative housing that would meet her needs. As an elderly woman who has a medical issue, she’s required to have regular physical therapy appointments and regular visits with her doctor. She wanted to find a place near her primary care physician in Goleta where she now lives, but ran into the affordable housing shortage and is struggling to find a new place to live.

“I was homeless for four-and-a-half years, I pay my rent on time, I’m a good neighbor and this unit has been a haven for my emotional stability, and for Core Spaces LLC to push everybody out like this, it’s reprehensible,” Leon said as her voice cracked. “I didn’t expect to get this emotional, but I’ve been keeping all of this inside. Nobody knew anything about my circumstances but now I’m opening up and sharing these things.”

Leon is one of about 1,000 tenants, primarily low-income residents on the South Coast, experiencing evictions as property owners, like Core Spaces, decided to end residential tenancies in order to remodel and raise the units’ rents, according to an April 6 county staff report.

“I’ve seen what greed does to people, I’ve seen what it does to people’s hearts, and I ask you to give the people here a cap so they are able to afford [housing] and it won’t be double what we are paying now,” Leon said.

As a result of the mass evictions, the supervisors voted 3-2 (with 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino dissenting) to amend County Code Chapter 44 in order to provide more tenant protection and make it more difficult to displace renters in the unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County.

The changes now require landlords to offer tenants a one-year residential lease. Landlords can only terminate a tenancy for a “substantial remodel” that would bring a rental unit up to Health and Safety Code standards and are required to offer the former tenant first right of refusal to re-lease—meaning they can return to their unit after they have vacated for remodels, according to a county press release.

“The world we live in is a collective effort; either it’s a collective success or it’s a collective set of mistakes,” 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said at the meeting. “And one of those mistakes I sincerely believe is that the largest market, the city of Santa Barbara, had zero production on private apartment buildings for over 40 years, and we’re still digging our way out of that.”

Santa Barbara County has a 2 percent vacancy rate and has lost 754 affordable housing units in the past three years with the risk of losing an additional 2,050 units in the next two years, according to the staff report. Williams said that these protections ensure that tenants have the county’s support.

“This is up to a thousand people at this location, but it is potentially thousands elsewhere,” Williams said. “As the desperation of Santa Barbara’s working class grows, I will just be honest, my desperation grows because I feel that we have to go to bat for those people.”

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann cited a recent homelessness study conducted by UC San Francisco, which found that strengthening eviction protections is one of the first places jurisdictions can prevent homelessness.

“If we don’t want people in Hope Village, we have to figure out ways to keep people in their units now,” Hartmann said.

Fourth District Supervisor Nelson said that while UCSF may say that eviction protections are one of the ways to prevent homelessness, he said that protections may have unintended consequences for future affordable housing development.

“It’s economics 101, it’s one of the things they work through with first year college students: Does rent control actually lead to more affordable housing?” Nelson said. “And actually it doesn’t; it leads to less investment into affordable housing because there’s additional risk.”

The way to deal with those at risk of losing affordable housing is to build more housing, streamline county building processes, and promote programs that lead to homeownership, he said.

“One of the reasons it’s so expensive to live here is because we made it so hard to build here for years and years,” Nelson said. “If we want to address those things, we need to continue to build.”

While neither North County supervisor supported the measure, it still moved forward and the ordinance’s adoption will take place on July 11.