Threat of more mass evictions of renters in Santa Barbara
Mike Jordan is in a hurry. Late last week, the two-term Santa Barbara Councilman received the first batch of what would become a torrent of emails from a whistleblower resident of a 52-unit apartment building conveniently located in City College’s “Little IV” neighborhood. West Beach. Between the highway and the waterfront. She warned that mass evictions had only just begun. Or, in the language of the moment, “renewals” are coming.
By Monday morning, Jordan — Mesa’s grandfather, a longtime homeowner, and a self-described “grumpy old white guy” whose district includes the area in question — had a high-level meeting with City Attorney Sarah Knecht and her assistant, Denny Wee. City Manager Renee Early, and Community Development Director Eli Isaacson. Jordan wanted to start knocking on doors at the apartment complex, which was formerly known as Casa Pequina — perhaps because its units were so cozy they creak — and was renamed “West Beach College Commons” by the new owners, the Cotto Group, which took over Residential complex. Property on September 1st. Jordan wanted to start distributing one-page flyers — one side in English and the other in Spanish — to alert residents of their rights and available resources. More specifically, what protections does the city’s new just cause eviction law offer?
What could he say? He wanted to know.
Two days before the acquisition of the building, for which the Koto Group paid $16.8 million, Koto’s director of real estate, James C. Knapp, First Notice of Termination Letter. The tenant, who has lived there for eight years, was told she had 30 days to move out by October 1. “We are giving you this notice so you don’t think your lease has been renewed or will be renewed or that we can continue to lease the building after the termination date,” Knapp wrote. But he offered, as required by city code, “a one-session reconciliation meeting.” With the owner.
Jordan was convinced that the notice failed to comply with several aspects of the city’s Just Cause Protection Ordinance, which was intended to protect tenants who were uprooted through no fault of their own. But the attorneys present at the meeting — not having the lease or knowing how long the tenant had lived there — were unable to provide the conclusive answer Jordan requested.
On the surface, however, Knapp’s speech appears decidedly incomplete. For example, the tenant only gave 30 days’ notice, not the 60 days required by the ordinance; It also did not inform the tenant of the two-month relocation assistance the landlord must pay to the displaced tenants; It also did not mention one of the four reasons the decree considered acceptable as to why the termination occurred.
In an email response, Knapp stated: “For suspended leases, we follow all rules regarding notice and fees,” adding: “We believe we followed all the correct procedures.” Knapp said that four of the lease contracts have not yet been renewed, adding: “We do not expect that any other lease contracts will not be renewed this year.” Although he did not address how many additional “non-renewals” would be issued in the next year, he explained that Koto’s insurance company needs a complete overhaul of the apartment complex’s old electrical system, which was installed in the 1920s, he said. Adding urgency to this work, he said, is the recent fire that displaced 14 students renting space at an apartment complex in Beach City, which also focuses on the lucrative student housing market.
However reluctant City Attorney Knecht was to make an immediate legal ruling, she stressed that she takes any potential violations of the Just Cause Law “very seriously.” To that end, she sent a forensic investigator, Tony Alva, to the apartment complex Tuesday afternoon to knock on doors, interview tenants and take photos of their leases. (Later this week, activists from CAUSE and the Santa Barbara Tenants Union plan to inspect the building.)
If Couto intended to argue that the good cause protections did not apply because they “do not renew” the leases rather than “terminate them,” Knecht said such “quibbling” would not be acceptable.
Behind Jordan’s insistence on such legal technicalities lies the spread of economic violence resulting from the seismic shifts now occurring in Santa Barbara’s overheated rental markets. As real estate investment trusts like Coto buy up larger apartment complexes, long-term renters living in what’s described as “workforce” housing suddenly find themselves homeless with nowhere to go. Instead, apartments are rented to passing waves of students who are able to pay large sums thanks to parental support.
“This is a life-changing event, and in a very negative way,” Jordan said. “Some people will never recover. Some can become homeless. For others, it’s like being hit by a car when you’re 70. This may be the most outrageous example because it’s so old, but there are other cases that happen all the time — loneliness or Two units here and one or two units there.
While Knapp wouldn’t describe Cotto’s long-term plans for the property, the handwriting is on the wall. Its new name — along with ads taken out to fill vacant spaces and the company’s online presence — leaves no room for doubt. Koto is part of a nationwide real estate strategy, “Residence-Inspired Living,” that buys off-campus apartment buildings in college towns and turns them into student apartment complexes with all amenities.
One tenant, who declined to give her name, joked that she now lives in an “off-campus dorm” as she did when she was 17. “I have found the fountain of youth again.”
As economic strategies progress, it makes sense. Santa Barbara has a very large number of students who shower on and off; What until a week ago was Casa Pequeña—with its proximity to City College and downtown, its thick ivy walls, pool, and abundance of all the exotic species that define the Southern California beach experience—would be an ideal home away from home for young students.
If Koto’s online ads reflect reality, Koto will pack two renters into one-bedroom units, each charging $1,500 a month. The current tenant, Kayla Jensen, has been paying $2,200 a month for her one-bedroom unit since moving in last December. “It’s really cute but it’s so small,” she warned. “I don’t see how you can get two people in there. It would be difficult even if he was your friend.”
Jensen is 32 and has returned to Santa Barbara after 12 years of college and graduate school. She works remotely for a large company that she prefers not to name. She said most of the tenants are between 30 and 50 years old, with a few older people as well. Many people get around by bike. “It’s an amazing place,” she said. “It’s also very expensive. But it’s the least expensive place I could find.”
Jensen has not received notification yet, but expects to do so on November 15. She said that searching for a new place fills her with fear. “It took me a long time to find this.” Additionally, she cannot afford the moving costs to pay the first and last month’s rent plus the security deposit. “I only have $10,000,” she said. “It’s really frustrating,” she said. “You can’t keep up with the cost of living here.”
In the meantime, City Hall will continue to investigate whether the notices issued thus far comply with the city’s Just Cause Ordinance.