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Fab Five on the Issues: Does Santa Barbara Really Have a "Housing Crisis"?

On Sept. 14, four candidates for mayor were asked at a public forum to raise their hands if they thought there is a “housing crisis” in Santa Barbara.

All four – Angel Martinez, Bendy White, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin – instantly did so.

A few weeks earlier, when asked precisely the same question in a different setting, however, only one of the mayoral hopefuls – White – offered such a clear and unequivocal statement about the volatile housing issue.

During interviews on Newsmakers TV in August, Martinez, for example, said, “I wouldn’t call it a housing crisis,” while Murillo characterized it as a “housing shortage” and Conklin said it is “just a fact of life” that Santa Barbara is unaffordable for many.

Some of the people some of the time. The hand-raising political ape show which attested to an alleged “housing crisis” took place earlier this month, at an event sponsored by the Coastal Housing Coalition, a group that exists to, well, increase the supply of housing in town.

So it’s not altogether surprising that the mayoral candidates decided to play to the crowd that packed the New Vic Theater that night.

Politicians routinely pander, shift or tailor their message to the desires and values of a particular audience (or don’t bother speaking to them at all, ala council member Frank Hotchkiss, the fifth candidate in the race, who blew off an event where his free market views wouldn’t play well).

As a political matter, the eagerness with which Martinez, Murillo and Conklin embraced the “crisis” label, in front of a large group deeply invested in that narrative, represents a small case study of how the process of campaigning for office plays out, day after day.

Still, it’s instructive to review the candidates’ comments about the housing issue when they spoke, not to a special interest group, but to a presumably more general audience via the web and public access TV.

For the record, here is what each of the candidates said about a “housing crisis,” real or invented, on Newsmakers TV. The question, posed identically to all five rivals, began with an excerpt from a provocative column, published in Noozhawk, by Santa Barbara opinion-slinger Randy Alcorn:

Q: Randy writes the following:

“There is no housing crisis in Santa Barbara and there is no shortage of affordable housing. What there is are too many people who want to live here for a price they can afford and there are the forces of greed all too eager to profit by building a few affordable units along with many more new market rate units.”

Do you think there’s a housing crisis in Santa Barbara?


A: I wouldn’t call it a housing crisis.

I read that article and I agree. I agree with most of what he said in there. I think we have a shortage of work force housing. I wouldn’t call it a housing crisis.

This is, you know, I like to think of Santa Barbara as an island in the sense that we have nowhere to go. Can’t go up, can’t go out in any direction, so the real estate that we have is precious and what it requires is some careful planning, careful thinking about what are we going to do to have any kind of sustainable economic health for the people, for example, that work at Deckers or work at Sonos, to rent an apartment.

And, right now, we suffer from what I think he said in the article, there will always be more people who want to live here than this place can accommodate. But, that being said, what Santa Barbara also needs is a way of sustaining the future and we do have to have people who can live here, can find an apartment here, who will make $90,000 a year let’s say, and should be able to find a reasonable apartment for one or two-bedroom apartment and earn that kind of money and pay rent.


A: I do.

And I agree with a lot of what Randy is writing there. Most of the housing built in Santa Barbara over the last 50, 60 years has been built as workforce housing.

If you go back after World War II subdivisions, I live in one of those subdivision houses built in ’49, I would wager it sold for $10,000 or some kind of number like that. The Mesa, those were subdivisions that I believe started at $5,000 after the Korean War, so they were built with that intended.

You go to the Westside, if you see those little $800,000 houses, they were built to be work force housing. So, the intent was there to begin with, there just obviously were no price restrictions in place which is the kind of social engineering which we start seeing come into the equation, what, in the 70s is when the affordable housing started to get mandated.


A: I respectfully disagree with Mr. Alcorn.

We do have a housing shortage. Jerry, we’re not saying that we will build housing for everyone, but our housing programs are making a good effort. Our City Housing Authority is the finest in the country, it wins awards, and that’s capital A affordable. That’s housing for low income people. And, the effort in the dense housing program, our AUD, Average Unit-sized Density Incentive Program is really to build some rentals and the density size means that they’re smaller…because it’s a more efficient use of space, so that’s a positive thing and we put them on transportation corridors.

I get it, Mr. Alcorn perhaps doesn’t want to see anything else built in the City. We’re trying to be very careful where we put things. I’m very sensitive to overdevelopment and that’s why the AUD was looking at these specific areas where the new housing would go.


A: I read that and I thought Randy is one of the few people that I think actually, as painful as it is, has it right.

I mean, we have always been an exorbitantly expensive place to have housing. You go back 30 years, they were talking about a housing crisis. I think crisis is the wrong word, crisis is when people have been turned out of their houses and are wandering the streets. That’s not what’s happening here.

We always will have a housing challenge. Affordable housing is probably an oxymoron as a term. I mean, I can afford the house I got, I could afford it 20 years ago, I’m not sure I could afford it today, so does that make me a victim? No, that means that’s just the way it is and not everybody, although maybe everybody would like to, is going to be able to live here. So, when we start talking about affordable housing I think it’s a little bit pushing water up hill.

There’s two ways to get into the housing market and one is, particularly if you’re a younger person, you start renting and save up little-by-little, and then hopefully can buy someplace. Maybe you start buying in Ventura, make gains there, sell, and then you buy in Santa Barbara. Same with Lompoc or whatever. The other way is you get family assistance, which a lot of people do.


A: It’s interesting… in (the August 24) Los Angeles Times - there’s a front story on the housing crisis of California and it somewhat takes the same position, which is it’s the land cost and the demand for people who want to take advantage of coming and living on that land is so big that it just drives the price up, and up, and up.

It compared the average housing cost in San Francisco, which is $1.4 million for a unit to Los Angeles, which was $566,000 on average, to the lowest which was Riverside County, around $265,000. What it was showing across the board was that the land cost driven by competition for people who want to live on certain parts of that land which drives the cost up.

Now, in Santa Barbara, this is no consolation to anybody who wants to live here, but Santa Barbara as a city actually has more government controlled housing than almost any city of its size in America. 10% of all the housing in Santa Barbara is controlled by...the government, either Section Eight, or Housing Authority Housing, or restricted housing in some kind of way under the zoning laws, the way it was built.

That’s still a drop in the bucket of what people want who want to come here…But, you know, unfortunately, one of the things that is just a fact of life.


Images: Groundbreaking for Jardin de las Rosas housing development in SB (Chamber of Commerce); Sept. 14 Coastal Housing Coalition campaign forum; Angel Martinez; Bendy White; Cathy Murillo; Frank Hotchkiss; Hal Conklin.

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