Isla Vista Beat Reporter
The Isla Vista Tenants Union announced last week that its campaign to secure financial compensation for the six families evicted from apartment complex Abrego Villas last summer has succeeded, by way of an out-of-court settlement between the tenants and landlord Majestic Asset Management.
According to Associated Students Legal Resource Center attorney Robin Unander, who represented the families thanks to sponsorship from IVTU, each tenant filed a claim in small claims court soliciting $10,000 in relocation benefits of the $10,500 for which they were eligible under Santa Barbara County Ordinance 4444. Though these benefits were not awarded due to the decision of both parties not to go to trial, the tenants did receive an undisclosed amount of money from their settlement negotiations with Majestic.
Majestic issued notice to the six families in August, forcing them to vacate the premises by the end of October. The company then failed to award proper relocation payments within 20 days of issuing notice, invoking a violation of Ordinance 4444.
Based on his experience advocating with the tenants, IVTU President Andrey Bogdanov speculated that they may have decided to settle due to the potential risks of taking the case to trial, including delays in ruling that could incur additional legal fees or postpone the reward of benefits.
“They were forced to vacate their homes at the end of October, so it’s already been a very long time,” he said, “and they have endured certain financial hardships, so I think that was also [part of] the pressure to accept.”
Bogdanov still calls the settlement the “first major victory of its kind” out of the mass eviction cases IVTU has handled, since all tenants involved received some kind of compensation. In past cases, such as the 2013 mass eviction at 781 Embarcadero Del Norte, some tenants were denied compensation based on stipulations outlined in Ordinance 4444 that exempted them from its protection.
According to IVTU Vice President Alex Meallet, these stipulations are often overlooked either because tenants are unaware of them or because they are unaware that they are entitled to relocation benefits in the first place. Many evicted tenants involved in the 2013 case failed to continue paying rent through the date on which they were expected to vacate the premises, thus exempting them from benefits. The use of withheld rent payments to make payment on a new lease also constitutes an exemption from the benefits, and in these cases tenants are still required to repay the withheld rent to the landlord, according to Unander.
“[This dynamic] puts the landlord’s interests in competition with the tenant’s interests,” Unander said in an email. “It becomes a game of chicken in who is going to blink first–the landlord by paying the benefits, or the tenant using his rent for his new home.”
Because the tenants evicted from Abrego Villas approached IVTU so soon after receiving their eviction notices, Meallet said it was easier to avoid falling into such legislative traps.
“We were really lucky in this case that all the tenants came to us before any other events happened–before they had to move out or pay rent or things like that,” Meallet said. “We were lucky enough that they came to us first, so that’s also why I think this was so successful.”
Bogdanov and Meallet estimated that IVTU handles mass eviction cases about every two to three years, constituting “a continuing trend by out-of-town landowners who buy and renovate low-income apartment complexes in Isla Vista, then sharply increase the rent and market primarily to students in order to reap even greater profits,” as stated by a press release issued by the organization last week.
“The challenge was dealing with an out-of-town investor who is not vested in this community,” Unander said in an email. “They were immune to local politics and protocols, and cared zero about those who were impacted by their decisions.”
Nevertheless, Bogdanov ultimately thanked Majestic for complying with the ordinance’s intent, expressing “full faith” that the company would honor its terms in future endeavors.
“We are very, very grateful to everyone that came out to support these tenants,” Bogdanov said, “and we are very, very happy for the tenants themselves, to be able to stand up and fight for their rights and win this almost David versus Goliath battle.”