Members vote to clarify existing law
After hearing passionate arguments by both tenants and landlords on both sides of the issue, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to amend the city’s tenant protection ordinance by clarifying the definition of what constitutes a no-fault just cause eviction.
The current ordinance delineates various reasons a landlord can use to evict tenants for no-fault just cause, and the proposed clarifications would affect all of them by requiring landlords to demonstrate “good faith” when evicting a tenant instead of just announcing their “intent” to carry out whatever they say they want to do.
Three of the reasons permitted are the intention of landlords to live in the unit themselves, or have their families live there; to permanently withdraw the unit from the rental housing unit; or to satisfy a government order that the unit needs to be vacated.
The only issue before the council Tuesday involved the proposed demolition or substantial renovation of a unit.
Tenants have told the council that their landlords often say they intend to make renovations but then don’t do them, or if they do, they make only cosmetic changes.
Like they’ve done before, tenants urged the council to pass the emergency measure to prevent landlords from using renovating a unit as an excuse to evict their tenants, so they can then raise the rent for new tenants taking their place.
Landlords, however, insisted that there are no loopholes in the law that need to be closed. They said there are always “bad actors” and those are the ones the city should go after rather than make wholesale changes in the law.
Several council members, however, said they supported the emergency ordinance, which took effect immediately upon adoption, because it’s not a brand new law but only reflects the council’s original intention when it passed the tenant protection law, which, according to Councilmember Mike Jordan said, “clearly allows the possibility of bad actors.
“We’re just making good on an ordinance that’s already been passed,” he said.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon agreed. “We need to clean up the language as we intended.”
She said it’s evident that there are loopholes in the ordinance that are being exploited “and are being done to the detriment of the residents, and that the emergency ordinance and its clarifications are needed.
“This is a very real problem and affecting very real people,” Councilmember Sneddon said.
The landlords, she said, are basically accusing the tenants of lying when they cry about being evicted for no just cause. “I’m as uncomfortable with that as I would be saying all landlords are bad landlords.”
While Mayor Randy Rowse voted for the emergency ordinance, he said the council only has listened to tenant anecdotes. “I don’t hear any real numbers. Are there illegal things going on? Yes. But most of the testimony, while true — they’re doing things that are already illegal.
“What went on here today is cleaning up language responsible to the original language the council put forward.”
In addition to requiring landlords to show good faith, the emergency ordinance would require them to take out permits to do the work, not just say they’re going to do it. In addition, it would require them to give advance written notice to tenants that they have to vacate before the work begins, and explaining why they cannot do the work while the tenants are still there.
The law already requires landlords to give tenants at least 30 days early notice that they will have to vacate.
The council voted to ask staff to do further work on three issues: the amount of time landlords have to give written notice to tenants before renovations begin; landlords being able to relet a unit after taking it off the market; and a requirement that when one unit is permanently removed from the rental market, that all units on the same parcel be removed as well, a particular sticking point among some council members.
The council heard strong debate Tuesday from both tenants and landlords. More than 20 people spoke during the public comment period.
Tenants described it as a battle for the soul of the community.
Landlords, however, insisted the problem remains undocumented. They urged the council to wait and not rush to make changes for a problem that doesn’t exist.
Quite a lot of discussion Tuesday dealt with what the term “good faith” means.
Assistant City Attorney Dan Hentscke told the council the emergency ordinance would not change anything for landlords acting in good faith.
“Any good landlord should not have any problem complying with any of the requirements of the law we’re proposing,” he said. “You have to do it for the reason you say you’re doing it. You can’t have ill intent. You can’t play ‘hide the ball,’ or be doing it for a malicious reason.”