Isla Vista, one of the densest residential developments in the nation, is plagued corner to corner by dilapidated housing, cracked foundations, faulty wiring, leaked sewage and vermin. Now, in an effort to assuage such rampant health and safety violations, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is preparing to consider a plan for mandatory housing inspections of the community’s approximate 4,600 units.
The county Building and Safety Division is still hammering out the details of the plan, but both landlords and tenants have already raised questions and concerns. Landlords claimed that 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall, whose jurisdiction covers I.V., is attempting to “demonize” property owners. Chuck Eckert, chair of the I.V. Property Owners Association’s executive committee, has been so audacious as to accuse Marshall of attempting to cover up the local housing shortage and recommends giving landlords greater autonomy. What men like Eckert refuse to acknowledge is that I.V.’s housing stock has fallen into such a state of disrepair because the majority of landlords have been reticent in attending to needed upkeep.
Granted, the student population exerts an unusually severe amount of wear and tear on its rental units, but when it comes to foundations and plumbing, landlords must pick up the slack. Many property owners have also turned a blind eye to illegal garage conversions that squeeze in more students but substantially increase fire danger. I.V. is well within the red zone, and some day the axe will fall. As UCSB enrollment continues to climb, the housing crunch bears down upon local residents with increasingly greater force. This does not mean that these people should be forced to put up with substandard housing.
A program similar to the one currently under review was introduced in 1997, but was struck down for fear of violating tenants’ rights. In lieu of mandatory housing inspections, the office of the I.V. housing inspector was established, but the position’s prerogatives were limited to inspections based upon complaints or violations visible from the street. Thus far, the office has received 400 solicitations for aid, 375 of which have resulted in the discovery of code infractions.
The issue of tenants’ rights is a legitimate concern. Although the I.V. Tenants’ Union has commended the county’s desire to ameliorate local living standards, the group remains apprehensive about what would become of local families or renters should their places of residence be condemned. Unfortunately, Isla Vistans are caught right in the middle of a big, fat Catch-22.
Living in I.V. is not easy, and it will certainly not improve if nothing is done. Of the 375 complaints that the housing inspector received in three years, not one constituted a condemnable violation. The program calls for one inspection every five years, conducted under the watch of two inspectors. Such inspections may seem invasive at first, but consider the fact that many of tenants’ most fundamental requests, such as a working oven, go unanswered by landlords for years. Given the housing situation in town, it is extremely easy for landlords to victimize renters, and a program that will check this trend is crucial.
The county will ask $150,000 from the state government to cover the estimated $344,000 cost to implement the program. The cost of inspection per apartment would be $150, to be paid over a five-year period by the property owner. Landlords, being the just and responsible overseers that they are, have already blatantly admitted that they plan to pass these costs on to tenants. However, in light of rents, which have soared by as much as 75 percent in the last two years, such duplicity on the part of property owners would be nothing new.
A mandatory inspection program will not be easy for any party, by any means. However, I.V.’s housing stock is facing very drastic circumstances and, as the old colloquialism goes, this requires drastic measures. County government must step in for the good of the community.