February 23, 2024
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Santa Barbara city, county suing landlord Dario Pini for $8.1 million in penalties


Updated at 5:50 p.m. on Feb. 16:

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne filed a lawsuit against infamous landlord Dario Pini seeking more than $8.1 million in penalties for alleged unfair business practices, the DA announced Feb. 16.

The suit stems from the city’s inspection of the landlord’s 164 housing units in December, which the city found substandard, unsanitary and overcrowded. The complaint, which also represents the people of California, contends that Pini should be held liable for 3,245 violations at $2,500 per violation and up to $5,000 for those against seniors or disabled people. The civil penalties are to be used for the enforcement of consumer protection laws and for the benefit of city and county residents, according to the complaint.

Pini denied the claims in the complaint.

“They wanted to find as many violations as they could to make me look as bad as they could,” Pini told the Business Times.

The suit was monetarily driven, said Seth Buckner, operations manager of DP Investments.

“It’s not about building and safety, it’s not about habitability, it’s about money,” Buckner told the Business Times, adding that there were more than 1,000 complaints on one property alone, many of which were frivolous, he argues.

The plaintiffs claim that they’ve more or less had enough with Pini’s misbehavior. The complaint lists extenuating circumstances given the “nature and seriousness of Pini’s misconduct, number of violations, persistence of Pini’s misconduct, length of time over which Pini’s misconduct occurred, willfulness of Pini’s misconduct, and the assets, liabilities and net worth of Pini.”

“California law is clear that persistent code violations of this magnitude amount to unfair competition that harms Santa Barbara residents and taxpayers,” Calonne said in a news release.

The alleged code infringements include California health and safety code, Santa Barbara municipal code, building standards code, fire code, electrical code, plumbing code and the international maintenance code.

“Since the early 1980s, Pini has been actually and legally responsible for thousands of unlawful acts and neglect that have collectively damaged the health and safety of the residents of his properties and the surrounding Santa Barbara neighborhoods,” the complaint reads. “Pini has a business practice of seeking out and taking economic advantage of tenants who may be unable to demand their legal rights to safe and habitable housing because of their poverty, immigration, status, age or disabilities. Pini himself lives in Santa Barbara’s Riviera neighborhood where he keeps his own home as, literally, a rat’s nest of illegal construction, illegal storage, vermin infestation and dangerous conditions.”

The listed defendants include Pini, DLP Properties, Trustee of the Dario L. Pini Trust, Nonnie Investment LLC, 104 Las Aquajes LLC, Alamar II LLC and Alamar III LLC.

The complaint went on to say that the city has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to punish Pini for alleged “hazardous, horrific and unconscionable living conditions,” including infestations, mold, unpermitted electrical wiring, unsanitary bathrooms, plumbing leaks, structures that are near collapse and inadequate ventilation.

“Pini routinely disregards the judicial process,” the complaint reads. “The people bring this action under California’s Unfair Competition Law so that the court can protect the residents and economy of Santa Barbara, once and for all, by enjoining Pini’s unlawful practices.”

The city completed its initial inspection of the units on Dec. 8 after obtaining a warrant to identify hazardous living conditions. City inspectors found more than half of Pini’s residents are children, many of whom lived in apartments that were infested with rats and cockroaches, broken or unsafe heaters, and unsanitary bathrooms, the city said.

Pini tried to interfere with the inspections and dissuade his tenants from talking with the investigators, city officials said.

A 22-room motel had to be “red tagged” due to hazardous modifications to a gas-fired boiler system in an electrical equipment room that had significant electrical violations.

Pini has had a number of similar situations play out over the years. He argues that he provides an essential service to low-income families who are traditionally underserved. The city, and others, claim that the housing he provides is uninhabitable.

“We provide housing for people who no one else will rent to — low-income Hispanic people,” Pini said. “We went to those people because they need housing.”

As of 2012, Pini owned 46 properties with a total value of more than $40 million, according to Business Times research. His total property tax liability in 2011 was $458,242. The Santa Barbara County Auditor-Controller’s office couldn’t provide more recent figures.

• Contact Alex Kacik at akacik@pacbiztimes.com.