'We Had a Deal with Dario,' but Now They Don't

Tenants Struggle with Receiver on Pini Property that Faces Demolition

Dario Pini's San Pascual property, which has steadily been losing tenants, faces demolition as the costs of fixing the three buildings outweigh its investment value. One family being evicted disputes strongly that they are behind in their rent.

Erika Carlos

Dario Pini's San Pascual property, which has steadily been losing tenants, faces demolition as the costs of fixing the three buildings outweigh its investment value. One family being evicted disputes strongly that they are behind in their rent.

Through no fault of their own, a family on San Pascual is being evicted by William Hoffman, despite a court order that forbids it. The eviction notice, dated September 13, states unhealthy mold spores were found in their apartment, a Health and Safety Code issue that should have triggered housing assistance from the receiver. But it didn’t; Hoffman, who is bringing eight of Pini’s properties up to code, states San Pascual has no money to rehouse tenants. Instead, the extended family of 13 people spent four weeks finding a new home, clear across town, which will disrupt the children’s schooling and turn all their lives upside down. But it’s just as well that they’re leaving, because Pini plans to demolish the place.

Hoffman was appointed receiver in April, in charge of fixing violations big and small, from bare electrical wiring to rotten ceiling joists. The protracted trial had also considered the city’s Housing Authority as receiver since that agency is familiar with Santa Barbara’s housing shortage; the city is considered by many to be down to a half percent vacancy rate. But the receiver requested by Pini and his lenders, Hoffman and his property management company, Trigild of San Diego, won the job. Hoffman was undeniably qualified. But City Attorney Ariel Calonne went to great lengths to have the receivership established under Health and Safety codes that state the “receiver shall provide relocation benefits” because eviction was a city concern regarding Hoffman. He usually handles bank receiverships in which evicting tenants is customary.

All this is cold comfort for Eleodora S. and her extended family. The two-bedroom apartment they’ve lived in for 11 years ​— ​at the cost of dealing with cockroaches, rats, and a broken-down building ​— ​rented for $1,950 and housed two sets of parents and their nine children. The men in the household work construction and were able to fix things in exchange for a rent reduction from Pini. They have always paid their rent, Eleodora said, and have the receipts to prove it. The 30-day notice her family received simply tells them to leave: “You are welcome to vacate and turn in your keys sooner without penalty,” it offers, but it makes no mention of any help in finding a new home.

The mold causing their eviction sprouted after their bathtub developed a crack, a situation they could have bargained with Pini to fix. The three-car garage below their apartment had been stuffed full of so many tubs, sinks, doors, cabinets, and other things that the doors wouldn’t close, said family friend Ana Bello. They close now, because the tenants cleaned up the garages at Trigild’s request and without compensation. Trigild cannot barter since it must report all financial transactions to the court; work exchanged for rent has no place on its financial statements.

The family living in the middle building on the lot had also bartered with Pini on the rent. Paulina said her husband is a painter, but he’d been injured on the job. The house and surrounding fence are thick with glossy gray paint, part of their work-trade deal with Pini. Now they try harder to scrape the next month’s rent together.

In the big house at the front of the property, a frequently rotating collection of housemates had lived in bedrooms, the living and dining rooms, and even a closet at one point. Stepping indoors, the floor slopes decidedly to the west. Tenant Cynthia R. is moving, too, but she’s liked it there. Trigild kept the yard up ​— ​the roses were in bloom ​— ​and the management company’s traps had killed a lot of rats. Her cat, Victor, caught mice and cockroaches for her, she said. “There’s no problem here,” insisted another tenant living in a room upstairs.

What Hoffman’s report ignores is the consequence of the eviction to Eleodora’s household. All the older kids in both families had graduated from McKinley Elementary; the younger ones will be the first to attend a different school. Their parents have put a brave face on the disruption to their lives, letting the young ones know that friends from their soccer team will be at the new school. For their eldest, a change of school is a blow ​— ​she is a senior in high school.

Eleodora’s family has been caught in the crosshairs of Pini’s fights with Hoffman over money, which occurred monthly until Judge Colleen Sterne stated they would sum up at the end and then argue about it. When Hoffman asked for $67,922 to tent the buildings at San Pascual and pay maintenance costs, Pini responded with a Motion for Leave to Demolish San Pascual. His attorney Paul Burns presented a jumble of numbers to show the costs could outweigh the property value, but the upshot ​— ​“Hoffman is going to blow through at least $1,317,000.00 over the next 12 months” ​— ​was that the repairs would sink the property value. In reply, Hoffman reported he would add the demolition to his list of construction projects, revising his money request to $81,522, which includes the eviction of all tenants. Three are already being evicted for nonpayment of rent.

Only the city’s attorneys spoke up for the tenants at the busy hearing Friday morning. Matthew Silver reminded the court that the city’s lack of housing made losing these units an issue. Also, he noted, the receiver’s reports stated the tenants were being evicted rather than relocated, which “belies the court’s orders.” Hoffman’s attorney Fernando Landa replied that the term “eviction” had been “inartful.” Relocation would be offered to rent-paying tenants, he claimed.

Hoffman’s October report indicated the San Pascual property made $6,800 in rents; since April, expenses had ranged between $46 and $4,600; Hoffman’s $5,000 receiver fee is additional. In an email exchange after the court hearing, Hoffman wrote that the property is without funds, and he was therefore unable to offer any assistance to the evicted. He’d told the court he was close to only paying utilities. Hoffman wrote that he’d contacted a third-party lender about funding but had no response. He confirmed that Eleodora’s family was being evicted for the mold problem, not for nonpayment of rent.

Hoffman had reported in detail about moving 119 tenants to motels during the tenting of three properties in October and November for cockroaches, bedbugs, and termites. The eviction for mold spores was buried in a paragraph titled “Mold Investigations and Results” with no mention of relocation help. Any rehousing at San Pascual would be a lengthy process, Assistant City Attorney John Doimas acknowledged, one that would not help Eleodora’s family at this point.

In court, though Silver called the landlord’s request to demolish the property “procedurally offensive,” asserting the receiver should be the shot caller on the property, he also agreed that Hoffman should manage the demolition. Burns, ever ready with the apt legal citation, said Gonzalez v. Santa Monica gave the receiver the right to consider demolition of a seriously decrepit property, should anyone have any doubts. Judge Sterne, who appreciated both Pini’s nonviable investment argument ​— ​should the numbers be borne out ​— ​and the “radical surgery” the proposal presented, observed the devil would be in the details.

The court will reconvene on November 30 to consider matters that include Referee Elinor Reiner overseeing city permits for work at Pini’s own house and his hotel at 102 West Cabrillo. Reiner remains on those cases, despite the October 31 deadline for final fixes having passed. The motion to level the San Pascual property is also set for that day.

Editor's Note: This story was written with the assistance of Erika Carlos. The online version was replaced with the print version, "The Devil Is in the Details," on November 8, 2018. The Independent has chosen to use tenants' last initials only to protect their privacy.