With the end of summer approaching, Santa Barbara County officials greeted more than 150 students moving into residences on oceanside Del Playa Drive with unusual housewarming gifts – eviction notices.
The county posted the notices Aug. 27 at nine properties along the cliffs of the 6600 and 6700 blocks of DP, indicating that erosion of the bluffs underneath the houses had made them unsafe for habitation. Tenants were given until Sept. 27 to vacate the buildings, unless their landlords are able to either prove the buildings are safe or reinforce their support structures to the county’s satisfaction. After further consideration, the county announced Sept. 15 it would extend the deadline for three of the nine affected residences – 6619, 6701 and 6703 DP – to Oct. 22.
County building official Mike Zimmer based the decision to evict the students on an annual assessment of bluff erosion in Isla Vista that was completed in late June. Zimmer said this year’s findings were troubling enough to deem the properties unsafe.
“There has been some accelerated erosion around the caissons,” Zimmer said. “It hasn’t been this bad in previous years.”
Brian Baca is the county engineering geologist who measured the effects of bluff erosion during the assessment walks. Baca said he also observed cracks and wear in several of the pillarlike caissons supporting parts of buildings that were largely suspended over open air.
“You could no longer just assume the buildings are safe,” Baca said. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it isn’t going to be the last.”
Many of the students and landowners said they were surprised by the decision, having been given no warning by the county. The eviction notices have been especially troubling for many of the students who just moved in, as they may soon be forced to hunt for new places to live in a sparse real estate market just as the school year begins.
Nathan Simarro, an undeclared sophomore, recently moved into 6757 DP with five friends. Simarro said he is reluctant to move unless it is absolutely required.
“It took us a long time just to get this place,” Simarro said. “I’m not too happy at the thought of leaving. I was going to wait it out.”
Junior aquatic biology major Meghan Powers is living for a second year at 6743 DP with five friends. Boasting six rooms and a balcony with an ocean view, the house would be almost impossible to replace, especially this late in the season, she said.
“We would either have to split up or move downtown,” Powers said. “I’m not worried about it at all, though. I don’t think we’ll have to move.”
Zimmer said he understands the problems the eviction notices are causing for the landlords and tenants, but he said his department has a responsibility to keep local residents safe, above all else.
“Our primary concern is public safety,” Zimmer said. “Timing is not an issue for us.”
However, Zimmer said the county will be working more proactively and collaborating more closely with landlords in the future to try to prevent a repeat of this year’s situation.
Currently, landowners representing eight of the nine properties have appealed the eviction orders, and they will get a chance to make their case in front of a panel of private engineers, architects and geologists sometime during the week of Sept. 27, Zimmer said.
Some landlords, like James Gelb – who owns the properties at 6701, 6741 and 6743 DP – have already hired scientists to get structural evaluations for themselves. Gelb said he has commissioned studies of the bluff erosion by a structural engineer, a civil engineer, a geologist and a geotechnical engineer.
Gelb said the reports by the structural engineer and geologist both came back favorable for all three properties, and he will have the results from the other two studies within a few days. In his report on Gelb’s properties, structural engineer Michael Krakower made an assessment that the “buildings are adequate at the present time for continued occupancy.”
Gelb said he is confident that, come appeal time, the testimony of his team of scientists will be enough to convince a panel that all of his buildings are safe.
“I don’t anticipate that a rational appeals board would disregard the opinions of respected professionals.”