Santa Barbara City Council to consider proposal to protect tenants
Santa Barbara City Council members vowed two weeks ago to aid longtime Santa Barbara tenants who pleaded with them for help in fighting what they claimed were unjust evictions by landlords who wanted them out so they could raise the rent.
The council members meant what they said.
At their meeting today, council members will consider passing an emergency ordinance to tighten the current definition of “no-fault just cause” when it comes to residential evictions. It would close loopholes in the existing law, require landlords to show good faith and make them apply for work permits for any substantial renovations they want to make.
The council will meet at 2 p.m. at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.
“Public testimony has provided evidence that some landlords are reading the existing code language as having loopholes,” staff said in its report to the council. “This ordinance addresses an urgent need to protect tenants from evictions, particularly evictions by owners using apparent loopholes in existing regulations to exploit and displace tenants.”
Tenants who spoke before the council said their landlords would tell them they have to leave so they could make “safety” or “habitability” repairs, when, in fact, the repairs they make, if any, are often just “cosmetic” in nature.
One speaker, Wendy Santamaria, an organizer with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, urged the council to help the tenants, who are afraid of ending up homeless on the street or being displaced and having to move away.
“I want to appeal to your heart,” she said. “These are real people, not just those in this room but hundreds of others who could not be here. Do something with the power you have.”
The emergency ordinance is the council’s response.
The proposed ordinance would close loopholes in the law “by making it clear that any action to recover a rental unit requires good faith on the part of the landlord,” staff said.
That’s exactly what Councilmember Meagan Harmon said should be done in a previous interview with the News-Press.
“I do believe that the council should move forward to close the ‘renovation loophole’ — the intention behind our ordinance was to ensure that unjust evictions are stopped. If that intention is not being honored under the ordinance as written, if loopholes in the law are being exploited to circumvent its purpose, it is incumbent on our council to revise the ordinance so it is effective.”
Santa Barbara already has a tenant protection law on the books intended to be more protective than statewide regulations, staff said. This emergency ordinance would amend that law as it pertains to just cause for residential evictions.
Grounds for no-fault just cause eviction include: recovery of a rental unit for the owner’s personal or family residence; removal of the property from the rental market; compliance with a governmental order that requires vacating a rental unit; and demolition or substantial remodel of a rental unit.
Nevertheless, “the City Council has received numerous reports of actions by owners seeking to exploit apparent loopholes in the ordinance,” staff repeated in its report.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon told the News-Press previously that changes could be made to make the threshold higher to justify an eviction, such as requiring landlords to pull a permit for substantial work, rather than meeting the current lower threshold of just having the intent to do the work.
The proposed emergency ordinance would do just that.
“The ordinance also makes it clear that recovery of possession for demolition or substantial remodeling may occur only after the landlord has obtained all necessary governmental permits and given advance notice to the tenant, including an explanation of why the work cannot be accomplished safely with the tenant in place and why the work requires the tenant to vacate for more than 30 days,” staff said.
The tenants’ displacement comes at a time when Santa Barbara faces a serious housing shortage, particularly for middle-, moderate-, low- and very low-income households, staff noted in its report.
“Council is aware of these shortages and has directed staff to undertake a variety of initiatives to address the shortage both by encouraging new housing projects and protecting existing housing stock,” staff said.
The proposed ordinance reflects the original intention of the council when it passed the tenant protection law, staff said. The fact that it is proposed as an emergency ordinance reflects the seriousness of the situation.
Whereas a regular ordinance is effective 30 days after adoption, an emergency ordinance becomes effective immediately upon adoption.
Staff is urging its passage today “to preclude further disruption and prevent actions that will displace tenants and reduce affordable housing.”
Passing an emergency ordinance requires five affirmative votes. If there aren’t five votes, the ordinance may be introduced by four votes and subsequently adopted at the next regular meeting.