It’s Good to Have Options: Resources to Protect and Educate Student Tenants


Giuseppe Ricapito
Isla Vista Beat Reporter

The Isla Vista housing season has begun, and for many students, the hectic pressure of assuring housing involves weeks, if not months, of planning, organization, and deliberations—confirming your contractual consent (affirmed by the financial backing of your co-signer) as well as figuring out where, and with whom, you will plan to spend a school-year.

But before you reserve a house or apartment, you better be sure you can stand living in it. This certainty, prior to the ink drying on the lease agreement, can better prepare a tenant for possible disputes with property owners. If something does happen—from arbitrary charges and personal discrimination to outright neglect—residents have local outlets dedicated to the advocacy and education of Isla Vista tenants.

Aaron Jones, Associated Students Assistant Director for Community Affairs, Student Engagement and Advocacy is the manager responsible for the Isla Vista Tenants Union (IVTU). While explaining the IVTU’s role in tenant advocacy, Jones paraphrased, offhand, the mission statement of the organization.

“We’re here to help and service and support student and non-student members…by taking on the charge of broadening awareness and bringing education to Isla Vista [residents] about their rights as tenants,” Jones said.

“The very structure of IVTU allows any resident of Isla Vista to be a member of the Union by design,” he continued. “There is a general lack of understanding and awareness amongst tenants about their rights…and about what property owners can and cannot do.”

The IVTU Office is located at 6550 Pardall Road, sharing the second story above the new I.V. Associated Students building with the Isla Vista Legal Resource Center. Though Aaron acknowledged that the Tenants Union cannot provide legal advice, “they are able to do a much broader service” because legal information is literally available on the other side of the room.

While the IVTU represents all local residents—from students to working families—the UCSB Community Housing Office (CHO) offers a variety of residential services to UCSB students, faculty, and staff throughout Isla Vista, Goleta, and Santa Barbara. Providing rental housing information, roommate and property owner dispute resolution, and educational workshops, CHO is a resource for education and mediation rather than advocacy.

Jennifer Ja Birchim of CHO reinforced that the organization did not consign to a bias when hearing about negligence or mistreatment from either tenants or property owners.

“We are a really neutral third party between tenants and landlords,” she said. “We want to educate students on their rights and responsibilities…so they’re going in with eyes wide open. They can be held accountable and the owners can also be held accountable.”

Ja Birchim noted that a foundational issue for student residents was that about 75 percent of students sign leases without reading and digesting their contractual obligations. She encouraged that students be “proactive” and not only construct “super clear…roommate agreements,” but also understand the “steps to be able to resolve issues with the management company.”

Alba Moreno, the IVTU caseworker, provides resources and supportive services for Isla Vista residents. Conversations with Moreno, Jones noted, revealed a variety of potential issues between tenants and property owners. Due to the diversity of potential disputes, no single problem stood out as most common.

But the tenancy horror stories can range from mundane and erroneous to downright strange. Jones explained that on one occasion, a woman was charged an $800 fumigation fee for an entire property because the building owner blamed her for an infestation.

In some cases, a predatory property owner can charge residents for maintenance operations or distorted violations of a leasing contract. The IVTU frequently receives student and non-student reports of “excessive fees tacked onto their rent for things they didn’t necessarily have anything to do with,” Jones explained.

“Its so all over the board,” said Ja Birchim. “There isn’t one commonality, its mostly things in terms of maintenance requests and security deposit disputes are a big one.”

The CHO also provides a videotaping service so that residents have concrete documentation about the state of the residence upon moving in and moving out.

Richard Magnuson, the father of SBCC student Michael Magnuson, claims that local property management group Bartlein & Company was so abusive to students that he took them to small claims court to recover damages.

“My son and five roommates had to pay costs that were so far in excess of market rates it was crazy,” he said.

Though he acknowledged that the Trigo property was a “mess,” he claimed that the subsequent charges—including a $1,120 cleaning bill (for two bathrooms and a kitchen at $35 per hour for 32 hours) and $885 for a toilet paper clog—were “ridiculously excessive.”

“We did not contact the IV Tenants Union as we thought small claims court would be a good approach after researching the law on tenant’s rights,” he said.

Robert Bartlein, President of Bartlein & Company, pointed out that his business does not regulate residences; independent property owners hire his company to take care of paperwork, security deposit refunds and locating potential tenants.

On behalf of the property owner, Bartlein & Company filed a cross suit against Magnuson to pay his bill.

“The judge ruled the charges appropriate and that he owed additional charges,” Bartlein said.

Recalling the case, Bartlein reinforced, “if a tenant vacates and does not leave the place clean,” he will be charged for “the cost of damage to property.”

“90 percent of tenants receive 100% of their security deposit back,” he said.

Though Magnuson lost the case, he claims that local residents should be aware of possible abuses.

“Potential renters of units in IV need to be warned that if they rent from these guys, they will have problems,” he said.

“Having reviewed some of the trends in our case management over the years, there are some property owners and management companies that we hear about frequently,” Jones said. “And there are others that we don’t hear about at all.”

Jones could not, however, specifically mention property managers with whom students have had recurrent disputes.

The IVTU is also researching a “Rate My Landlord” resource modeled on the popular “Rate My Professors” website, but there are still a few issues to be sorted out in its current stage.

“There are legal challenges and things we need to be mindful of,” said Jones. “We can’t convey what can be considered slanderous or defamatory.”

The CHO will be conducting a “Mocktail Happy Hour” in their on-campus office from 4 to 5 p.m. every Thursday in February for students to network over new housing and learn about the mutual responsibility of rents and leasing.

As a last kernel of advice, Ja Birchim suggested that students should “know whom you talk to.” And always, she said, “get things in writing.”