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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 11th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 32 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 32

Punching back

La Plaza Villas tenants consider striking as rent rates drastically increase

By KASEY BUBNASH

Javier Solis has lived in La Plaza Villas Apartments for nearly eight years. The complex, a series of cream-colored stucco buildings at the end of Olivera Street in Guadalupe, is one of the largest in a town that lacks abundant affordable housing for its residents.


PETITIONS AND COALITIONS
About 30 La Plaza Villas tenants signed a petition against dramatic increases in rental rates at a meeting in the Guadalupe apartment complex’s courtyard on Oct. 3. Residents also talked about electing a few leaders to represent the group during possible negotiations.
PHOTO BY KASEY BUBNASH

Eight years ago, Solis said he felt lucky to have even found an affordable apartment in the area. But after recent management changes and sudden increases in rent, Solis is now considering leaving.

 “There are plenty of people looking elsewhere,” Solis told the Sun through a translator.

Solis was just one of more than 30 frustrated residents of La Plaza Villas Apartments gathered for the third in a series of tenant meetings in the complex’s courtyard on Oct. 3. Many tenants shared similar concerns, primarily extreme rent and fee increases for outdated, improperly maintained apartments.

Solis said at the meeting that his rent has increased several times over the last two years, after the corporation that owns the apartment complex, Olivera Street Apartments LLC, announced it would be using a new property manager. 

Solis said he’s paying about $500 more each month for his apartment now than he paid a year ago. In November 2016, he was notified of a $200 increase. This year, it’s $300. Solis said if he stays with La Plaza Villas, he’d be paying more than $1,900 for an apartment that he said would usually go for $1,100. On top of those charges, Solis said an additional parking spot now runs for $20 more than it did when he first moved in.

Leopoldo Navarro said when he moved into his apartment three years ago, his rent was $1,150. In September 2016, Navarro said he received a notice that his rent would be hiked up to $1,300. Although he, unlike many other tenants, has yet to receive a notice of another increase this year, he said any more would be too much.

 “I understand I’m at risk,” Navarro said through a translator. “My main discontent is that they want rent increases but the apartments aren’t up to par.”

Navarro said he and several of his neighbors have had maintenance issues at the apartments. Three weeks ago, Navarro said he told the property manager that the burner on his stove wasn’t working properly. When his wife asked for a copy of the report she verbally filed, the manager said the copier was broken. Navarro said at the meeting that the stove still hadn’t been fixed.

Jorge Manly-Gil of the Guadalupe Catholic Worker said he and his colleague, Dennis Apel, have been working with several La Plaza Villas residents for weeks. Manly-Gil said he and Apel have helped schedule meetings, find local legal support, and are working to educate the tenants on any possible options moving forward.

Manly-Gil said many of the residents are low-income field workers who can’t afford drastic increases in rent.

At the Oct. 3 meeting, Manly-Gil and Apel said that after several attempts to contact the owners of the complex and negotiate, the most frustrated tenants had come to an agreement on how to handle the situation: a strike.

No final decisions were made at the meeting, but residents had a chance to look over a draft letter, which states that all residents would continue paying their current rents until the owners agree to negotiate reasonable prices.

“In some cases we have experienced up to a 41 percent increase in rents in less than a year (from $1,350 per month to $1,905 per month),” the draft letter states, “when in the same time period the average income in Santa Barbara County increased by 4 percent, which doesn’t include field workers, who saw no increase.”

That letter would be sent to Brad Vernon, one of the chief officers of Olivera Street Apartments, the same corporation that sued the city of Guadalupe in 2014 for banning boarding houses. The ban was enacted just as the corporation was attempting to sell the apartment complex as a boarding house to house workers in the U.S. through the H2A program.

In 2017, according to court documents, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court jury ruled in favor of Olivera Street Apartments. Guadalupe, a city not known for its financial stability, was ordered to pay about $143,000 in damages.

Although Vernon did not respond to requests for comment, his attorney, Jere Sullivan Jr., blamed deferred maintenance for the recent boosts in rent. Sullivan stated in a letter to the tenants that about $150,000 of improvements was made to the apartment complex, including new washers and dryers, new bark for the playground, and landscape repairs. On top of that, the cost of utilities and wages for staff increased.

Sullivan also said the former property manager failed to sufficiently raise rent to market value. When asked by the Sun if Vernon and other owners were overseeing the manager’s actions, Sullivan laughed and said he couldn’t comment, but noted that the new prices of rent are more closely in accordance with market value.

Virtually all La Plaza Villas residents without Section 8 or HUD will see a rise in rent in the near future, Sullivan said, which he said is perfectly legal. Santa Barbara County, and many other counties in California, are not rent controlled, meaning any landlord can legally charge any amount for rent.

But Sullivan said that during an extended lease, landlords are stuck with a fixed rent. Once a term lease expires, it becomes month-to-month and rent can be changed. Then a landlord can raise rent up to 10 percent as long as tenants are notified 30 days prior. If rent is raised by more than 10 percent, residents must be notified 60 days in advance.

A document provided by one La Plaza Villas resident shows that he was notified 60 days in advance of the upcoming spikes in rent. Another document provided by a tenant on strike states that if the tenant refuses to pay the increase, he would be evicted.

Sullivan said he couldn’t say whether Vernon and the other owners would consider negotiating with the tenants or if residents on strike would be evicted.

“One should never say never,” he said.

Alex Entrekin, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, a program that provides free legal services to low-income individuals, agreed that the changes in rent appear to be legal. However, Entrekin said the increases are not enforceable if the profits are used to fix already existing issues of basic habitability—things like toxic mold and cockroach infestations that have to be repaired by the landlord.

Although many tenants claimed this to be the case at La Plaza Villas—one resident said his gas stove was leaking for months before it was repaired—Entrekin said on Oct. 6 that his foundation hadn’t officially stepped in to help any individual tenants or the group as a whole, so he couldn’t confirm those allegations. Entrekin said he’d know more after another tenant meeting scheduled for Oct. 10, after the Sun’s press time.

 “Have apartment managers done their jobs?” Entrekin asked. “We don’t know at this point.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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