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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Housing is Crucial Issue in Key SBCC Race

In the local 2018 election, a previously low-profile contest for the City College board has become ground-zero for the debate over Santa Barbara’s most contentious issue: housing.

Darcel Elliott, a longtime aide to Supervisor Das Williams, is challenging Marsha Croninger, incumbent member of the Board of Trustees. Eliott's campaign includes a proposal that the college develop a strategy to build new housing to accommodate more than 7,000 SBCC students.

Elliott, whose mentor Williams has been a high-profile advocate of increased housing density in the city, argues that the college should embark on an aggressive action plan to use “public-private partnerships” and bond issues to provide on and off-campus units for the thousands of students who come from outside Santa Barbara.

In one-on-one interviews and a recent joint appearance on Newsmakers TV, housing emerged as a bright-line difference between the two candidates, presenting voters in the college district’s Area 5 (Riviera, Upper East Side, Mission Canyon, San Roque and a small slice of the Westside) a clear criteria of choice.

“I think (SBCC) has an obligation to the community to house the students they are bringing in,” Elliott said, asserting that construction that provides shelter for students who come from elsewhere would free up units for local residents.

“I know the Mesa neighborhood is concerned about it – I think they’re missing the big picture,” she said. “We need to show people it’s not the end of the world.”

Croninger, who was first elected with an insurgent slate of candidates in 2010, at a time when SBCC was embroiled in turmoil, takes a more conservative stance on housing and a more restricted view of the role of the trustees.

She said the SBCC board should focus more narrowly on programs that directly “serve the (Santa Barbara) community.”

“It’s an educational institution. It’s a community college and I think that means it focuses on the needs of its community,” she said. “I feel that at a very minimum, the issue of building housing for out of area students would be quite divisive for the community.”

In the weeds. As City Hall not only struggles with housing construction mandates imposed by Sacramento, but also grapples with the complexities of its ADU and AUD programs (not to mention its byzantine permitting process and loopy tangle of overlapping citizen design boards) questions of what, if anything, to do about City College represent a complex set of public policy choices.

The issue is shaped by the fact that over half of City College students (excluding non-credit, adult ed classes) come here from outside the district, which stretches from Gaviota to Carpinteria.

By state law, the college is required to admit anyone who applies from anywhere in California.

SBCC’s most recent “Report to the Community” shows that, as of the fall 2017 semester, the student body breaks down this way:

  • 17,457 students were enrolled at the college.

  • 7,922, or about 45 percent, were Santa Barbara district residents.

  • 9,535, or about 55 percent, came from outside the district.

The vast majority of the third group – 7,296 – comes from elsewhere in California (950 are from other states and 1,299 are international students; both groups pay substantially higher fees than state residents).

As a practical matter, this means that students from outside the district take up residence here, at least part or all of the year.

Complications ensue.

Where they stand. The crux of Elliott’s argument on behalf of an SBCC policy promoting a vastly expanded role in housing development is that out-of-area students are taking off the market rental units that otherwise could be occupied by local residents and families, at a time when Santa Barbara’s vacancy rate is effectively zero.

“I believe it would benefit the Mesa neighborhood to have housing on campus because it would remove students from neighborhood and put them on campus,” she said.

“All these students are taking up units that could go to local working people,” she added. “Everyone is feeling the squeeze of the housing market here. Even if you own a home, you feel the squeeze by the house next door to you being rented by a bunch of city college students,”

Although she mentioned several potential sites - a vacant college property near La Playa Stadium and the Wake Campus - Elliott is not proposing specific projects, at least for now. She said she is campaigning on the issue in order to begin a “legitimate, real conversation,” about SBCC housing.

“Housing has been the third rail in Santa Barbara,” she said. “There need to be a lot of discussions that haven’t been had all this time to figure out how we do this. None of this stuff has ever been explored.”

By contrast, Croninger views Elliott’s sweeping idea as an ill-advised expansion of the Board of Trustees’ roles and responsibilities, which traditionally have concentrated on fiscal and policy governance matters affecting educational matters.

“Is that within the purview of the Board of Trustees,” she asked during the candidates’ face-to-face televised discussion. “Is this feasible?”

She also discussed a second significant factor that influences the debate: Measure S, a 2014 ballot measure to provide $288 million in capital improvements at SBCC. It narrowly failed amid vociferous opposition from a portion of voters unhappy about the impact on neighborhoods of the college.

After the Measure S defeat, Croninger said, the trustees convened a series of meetings aimed at easing the bitter dispute by studying ways to allay SBCC’s quality of life effects on the local community.

“We have had a discussion about mitigating impacts on the community," she said, adding that "housing was part of that discussion."

“The recommendation of the ad hoc committee that I chaired (was that) we focus on a small project that might be located on campus, might not, that would speak to the needs of our most vulnerable local students – foster kids, mobility disabled kids, possibly Promise students who have a home life where it is difficult to study, possibly veterans." (The Promise program allows low-income and some other students who live within the district to attend free for two years, using privately raised funds).

“That is a manageable sized group that speaks to the needs of our most vulnerable students,” Croninger said.

Although a group of trustees at one point met with developer Neil Dipaola to discuss development of such a project, to date it has not moved forward.

Here is the Newsmakers TV face-to-face conversation between Marsha Croninger and Darcel Elliott, recorded on Sept. 26.

Images: SBCC Vaqueros logo; Deep in the weeds guy; Darcel Elliott; Marsha Croninger.

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