The eviction cases between Conquest Student Housing and the Cedarwood Apartments tenants concluded yesterday with all defendants accepting a settlement agreement to move out by Dec. 1.
The individual cases were brought forward to Judge J. William McLafferty in Department 5 of the Santa Barbara Superior Court last Friday and were completed yesterday in front of the tearful and disbelieving tenants. Each defendant accepted the settlement that consisted of the returned security deposit, no eviction shown on their records and an extended period of time to move, the last day of which is Dec. 1.
Since the Cedarwood tenants received notice of eviction in August, they, along with students and Isla Vista residents, have been protesting for their right to continue living in the apartments. Conquest originally gave the tenants a 30-day notice to vacate the premises.
Michael F. Rieselman, the attorney representing the families, said more than 90 percent of the people evicted are Latino families, and they contested the evictions on grounds of racial and family discrimination.
At yesterday’s trial, Alan Smolinisky, owner of Conquest, said he thought there was a diverse group of people in the apartments and hadn’t noticed any particularly large percentage of race when he visited. His comment garnered scoffs from audience members.
“I’m not aware of it – I’ve seen African Americans, Hispanics, white people, Asians in the building,” Smolinisky said.
Conquest, which manages a multitude of high-priced student housing complexes near the University of Southern California, is planning to fix up the apartments and rent them out at higher prices. Smolinisky said anyone who is able to pay the rent is welcome to live there.
“Absolutely, anyone who wants to pay the rent – we’re an equal opportunity housing provider,” Smolinisky said.
Smolinisky said Conquest will manage the property for the owners, but will not be on the title. The official owner of the property is 6626 Picasso, LLC. However, investigations have yet to clarify the relationships between Conquest and the limited liability companies on the deeds of the properties they manage, specifically whether or not Conquest fully controls the LLCs as a holding company.
Rieselman said Conquest targets students, and only certain students will be capable of affording the remodeled apartments’ rent.
“We do know Conquest Student Housing is the title and the name certainly speaks for itself,” Rieselman said.
Although Rieselman has been working on the case with the Law Offices of Oscar B. Valencia, it was only last Wednesday that he was referred to take over as trial lawyer, given that trial law is his specialty. He said he told all of his clients to take the settlement after realizing the judge would rule in favor of Smolinisky for every case. Yesterday, for instance, the judge ruled in favor of Conquest in two trials before the other tenants realized they would have to take the settlement.
“Alan Smolinisky is an extremely intelligent business man and very savvy,” Rieselman said. “He answered questions like a professional attorney would have; this guy is slick.”
Luz Silva, the last tenant to agree to the settlement, pleaded with John Greenwood of Dennis P. Block, the lawyer representing Conquest, about the morality of evicting so many families in such a short amount of time.
“Dec. 30 – that’s all we’re asking,” Silva said. “All we’re asking for is 30 more days. … Where are we going to find a place? Think about the childrens, think about what you’re doing to the families.”
Greenwood said several people have investments in the remodeling of the apartments and Conquest needs to begin construction before the rain starts in January. He said Conquest has a responsibility to its banks and investors.
“This is a business decision only and we need possession by Dec. 1,” Greenwood said. “It is sad that people have to move, but they do and we can offer no more time.”
Many of the tenants and members of the public attending the trial started crying when they realized the settlement was their only option. Former Associated Students President Cervin Morris, leader of the eviction protests, told the tenants they can still triumph.
“Everybody shouldn’t be sad, we just have a different fight now,” Morris said. “And the fight isn’t over.”
When asked if Conquest had any more plans to buy property in I.V., Smolinisky said he had “no idea.”
Though the eviction cases ended in tears, Rieselman said, the tenants still have other legal actions they can take.
“There’s a possibility of a civil lawsuit that they’re free to file if they want,” Rieselman. “The next focus is to get these people housing.”