By Elizabeth Lovero
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on a proposed “Renter’s Rights” ordinance, which would grant more rights to Isla Vista tenants.
If passed, the ordinance, drafted by 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall, would require landlords in the unincorporated areas of the county to pay interest on security deposits, provide relocation assistance to tenants who must move because of building code violations and register non-financial-related evictions.
While current state law prevents landlords from combining the security deposits of multiple tenants into an interest-bearing account, Marshall said she believes many landlords earn interest on security deposits and renters are entitled to that money.
“I am not convinced it is not possible to put their money in an interest-bearing account. Some of the things that the landlords have told us in the past have proved to be untrue, I would not be surprised if that is the case again,” she said. “When a tenant pays a security deposit, that’s money out of their pocket. For a house a security deposit can be around $3,000 and around $1,500 for an apartment. That is a pretty significant chunk of change. The point is that it is still tenant money and the tenant would be putting it to use if it was in their possession.”
Isla Vista property manager Ron Wolfe said the pre-existing law, as well as low interest rates, prevents all but a few landlords from earning any interest.
“For a property manger the laws are very strict on earning interest on trust funds. We are not allowed to group multiple tenants’ security deposits into a master trust while earning interest. We can only earn interest if each resident’s deposit is placed in a separate account,” Wolfe said. “The administrative burden of creating separate accounts, not to mention the costs, is incredible. We are not currently earning interest on any of our security deposits and I am not aware of any owner who is earning interest on his security deposits, particularly when interest rates are so low.”
The second provision of the proposed ordinance requires landlords to pay three months rent to tenants forced to move as a result of severe building citations.
Joan Brooks, the executive director of the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, said the relocation assistance is unnecessary and the high cost of the compensation is vindictive.
“If there is a slumlord and the people have to move, we fully support giving them some assistance. But the amount of assistance that they are proposing is excessive. So many of these things seem to punish the landlord. They just want to punish the landlord because he owns the property,” she said.
The third provision of the ordinance requires landlords to file a notice with the county clerk when a tenant’s lease is terminated for reasons other than failure to pay rent. Failure to file the form may result in a $50 fine. Marshall said the requirement to keep records is used to ensure just cause for evictions.
“I am looking toward making our landlord tenant relations better. When the [Isla Vista] Tenants Union first came to me I said that in order to take something to the board I need data. But there is no reliable data in existence. So we decided that when there is an eviction notice filed, it is filed with the county,” Marshall said. “Then when tenants come to the county saying that they are being evicted unjustly we have a record. The whole idea was to have a record around so that the individuals who are concerned can have some data to look back on.”
Eviction registration was modeled off a current Santa Barbara city policy, which requires landlords to document their reasons for evicting tenants.
Wolfe said the eviction registration in Santa Barbara is underused and creates needless paperwork for landlords.
“There is a $50 fine if you don’t report and there are lots of mom-and-pop owners who might not know about this change. If the county is collecting data from the property owners then they should pay for that information, not penalize the people who don’t comply,” he said. “The concern is why create a new paperwork burden if no one ever looks at the data and it just creates a burden for the property owners.”
I.V. Tenants Union member Brian Helme said the law would give tenants more leverage against their landlords.
“The relation between landlord and tenant is violent. If you anger your landlord, you risk losing your home. So, people tiptoe around their landlords,” he said. “There is no law covering eviction. It’s an open field. This is a small step in the right direction.”