Landlord or slumlord? Santa Barbara cracks down on Dario Pini, again

Santa Barbara is suing one of its biggest landlords.

Dario Pini, who owns over 100 properties across the city, is faced with three lawsuits and 3,200 building and safety violations brought on by the City of Santa Barbara. Instead of condemning the properties and evicting the tenants, City Attorney Ariel Calonne wants to seize Pini’s properties and appoint someone to repair them.

According to the city, the majority of Pini’s tenants are low income, Mexican immigrants who speak little English and endure substandard housing for fear they’ll get evicted.

“We’re in a time right now where immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants are living with a lot of fear,” said Calonne. “These are people who have very little power over their lives.”

Pini said he’s providing much-needed affordable housing, and many of the violations brought by the city are absurd.

“70-80% of these violations are minor violations. For example, my tenant’s dirty dishes in their sink became a violation on me.”

City Attorney Ariel Calonne spoke with KCRW about why he hopes these lawsuits will end what he calls a 20-year cat-and-mouse game.

How bad are the conditions?

The city inspected seven of Pini’s properties in December 2016 to gather evidence about substandard living conditions and safety hazards at these properties.

“Many of the residents were living in extremely overcrowded conditions, with makeshift walls and wiring,” said Calonne. “Typically, we found inoperable heaters, bad plumbing, extensive mold, rats and cockroaches. The harm caused by the people living in these units is really shocking and something we can’t tolerate as a community.”

Pini disagreed with Calonne’s claim that many of his units are overcrowded. He said he never rents to more than California’s housing code guidelines.

“We may have isolated situations where one or two people have slipped in, but I absolutely don’t have that kind of occupancy in any of my units,” said Pini.

What are the lawsuits?

One, which began in 2012, lumps all of Pini’s properties into one bundle so that the city doesn’t have to address each one separately.

The second asks the court to appoint an independent receiver who can take the properties over, collect rents, borrow against the properties and do the necessary renovations.

The third claims that all the health and safety violations against Pini amount to an unfair business practice. In other words, the lawsuit argues that Mr. Pini gains a competitive advantage over other property owners by not maintaining his properties.

What next?

The city is mid-course in all three lawsuits. Calonne hopes that after pre-trial motions, the court will move toward appointing a receiver and taking the properties out of Pini’s hands.

“After 30 years of spending quite a bit of taxpayer money dealing with this problem, it’s my goal to end it once and for all,” said Calonne.

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