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Santa Maria City leaders look to settle a lawsuit with landlord

Posted at 7:16 PM, Jul 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-17 22:49:18-04

The city of Santa Maria is considering settling a lawsuit with a landlord who they say has an “unprecedented” number of code violations.

While many repairs have been completed since the lawsuit was first filed in 2017, work still needs to be done on three Santa Maria complexes to bring them up to code.

More than 4,000 code violations were reported in the lawsuit against landlord Dario Pini. The city says they hope this case shows they’re willing to go to court to ensure the safety of everyone who lives here.

The conditions of apartments and rental properties owned by Dario Pini in Santa Maria is something KSBY cameras have been documenting since 2011.

Now eight years later, the city of Santa Maria could decide to settle its latest lawsuit against Dario Pini, the property owner some tenants have described as a “slumlord.”

“This is unprecedented in its scale  – Mr. Pini is the largest landlord in Santa Maria and these units are spread throughout the community. It is incumbent on the city to ensure all codes are met for the health and safety of everyone that lives here,” explained Mark van de Kamp, Public Information Manager for the city of Santa Maria.

In the lawsuit, the city sites code violations at 10 properties owned by Pini.

Some of the violations mentioned include mold, cockroaches and broken floors.

While Pini has made repairs at most of his properties in the case, three still remain the Vineyard Apartments, the Woodhaven Apartments and the Santa Maria Cottages according to the City Council agenda.

If City Council members approve the settlement Tuesday, a third party will begin overseeing Pini to ensure the repairs get finished and Pini will have to pay back the city the money it has spent on this case.

“Everyone has to play on a level playing field and we want to ensure everyone who resides in our city is afforded accommodations to the letter of the law,” van de Kamp said.

Pini’s attorney Paul Burns tells us in a statement:

I must compliment the City on their approach to these lawsuits; the City of Santa Maria did not pursue any political agenda or seek to make a point of punishing Mr. Pini. The City acted assertively to get all building code violations abated and Mr. Pini stepped up to the challenge and fully abated 7 of the 10 properties involved in the suit. Mr. Pini has commenced work on final abatement of all violations in the remaining three buildings.

It is noteworthy that the receiver in the Santa Maria case, Dean Pucci, charged fair monthly receiver fees (based upon the hours he actually worked on the projects). Mr. Pucci generally charged in the ten to fifteen thousand dollar per month range for maintaining responsibility of nearly 200 units. Mr. Pucci’s fees are approximately 1/6 of the flat fee that the receiver in the Santa Barbara case is charging. In sharp contrast, the Santa Barbara case receiver does not document the actual time he spends working on the  Santa Barbara properties yet still takes $60,5000.00 out of rents every month for maintaining approximately 100 units in receivership.

By not wiping out the rental income every month, Mr. Pucci allowed for cash flow from rent to be used for construction and abatement of violations. That rental income was used to reach the excellent and massive abatement of building code violations which helped the excellent results Mr. Pini achieved here including full abatement and release of  7 out of the 10 properties involved in the lawsuit.

Also having Retired Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa act as an impartial referee between the City and Mr. Pini was of great service. Judge Ochoa will stay on for three years to monitor compliance with property maintenance issues at 9 of the 10 original properties at issue in the suit and act as a neutral referee between Mr. Pini and the City, should controversy arise.

Judge Staffel summarized the positive result when the settlement was announced on the record. The Judge commended the parties for achieving the abatement of so many violations and reaching a comprehensive settlement. Judge Staffel also noted that the crushing need for affordable tenant rental housing requires that municipal governments don’t act against landlords of affordable housing with so a heavy hand that they discourage further investment in rental housing.

We tried to reach out to folks who live in these properties and were asked by Pini to leave.

The City Council will be voting on this issue at its meeting on Tuesday.

Court documents show Pini has been sued by several other Central Coast cities for similar code violations. Earlier this year, he paid $1.6 million to begin repairs on the nearly two thousand code violations at his Santa Barbara properties.