The dense jungle of Isla Vista housing harbors infectious rodents, allergy-causing pests and massive growths of mold and algae. A lone ranger patrols it – his name is Ron.
Ron Mowlett is the new inspector for the three-year-old Isla Vista Housing Inspection Program, located at 970 Embarcadero Rd. Since Mowlett started in June, he has handled over 250 cases, ranging from simple permit approval to fining landlords for ignoring substandard housing.
“Infestations, bad plumbing, bad wiring, mold, illegal conversions – a lot of what I do I wouldn’t have to do if landlords did basic maintenance,” Mowlett said.
Mowlett is currently working on a case with more than 20 separate violations on one property. All detailed information about a case is kept confidential until six months after the case closes.
Few landlords procrastinate when it comes to repairs, but a lack of response ends with a $100 per day per violation fine, according to Mowlett.
“Say you have a moldy bathroom with five separate violations – that’s $500 a day every day your landlord doesn’t make the repair,” he said.
The I.V. Housing Inspection Program is complaint-driven, meaning Mowlett can only enter a home when a tenant files a complaint or if he sees substandard housing conditions from the street. Araceli Garcia, an Isla Visa Tenant’s Union (IVTU) staff member who shares office space with Mowlett, said many tenants fear eviction for filing complaints.
“The IVTU reinforces the idea that you shouldn’t be afraid,” said Garcia, a senior chemical engineering major. “Whether you’re a student or a family, we’ll go to you and say, ‘These are your rights. Here are the facts,’ so they’re less scared.”
Garcia said the inspection program has a lot of power, but most renters’ knowledge of their options when they are in a dangerous housing situation is “very low.”
The UCSB Community Housing Office (CHO) issues a yearly I.V. Housing Survival Guide with information on lease signing, dealing with repairs and many other topics. Students can rent a video camera to film their property during move in. The CHO office holds the tape, and another videotape of the property is made at move-out time.
“It’s important to videotape both the beginning and the end of the lease when dealing with security deposits,” CHO Manager Roane Akchurin said.
Mowlett, Akchurin and Garcia said the first step for any renter with substandard housing problems is to notify the landlord in writing.
“I get students who come in here and tell me about leaky pipes and other problems and I ask, ‘Well, what did the landlord say?’ And they haven’t talked to the landlord,” Akchurin said.
Akchurin said there is a whole spectrum of ways to handle an unresponsive landlord, including referring the tenant to Mowlett and the inspection program.
“There’s a lot of things you can do and not have to live with it. I can’t understand how people would keep paying rent to breathe mold or have crumbling walls,” Akchurin said. “Most of the time property owners are willing to work with the students, but it requires communication. Some things aren’t life and death, but it’s annoying and it needs to be fixed.”
“Nobody should have to live in a substandard housing situation. Nobody,” Mowlett said. “Tenants have to ask themselves, ‘Is it more important that I protect my substandard dwelling because I have it right now, or is it more important to make a better living situation for the whole community?'”