Op-Ed: Why Sheila is Right and Das is Wrong about Housing in Santa Barbara
Updated: Feb 25
(Editor's note: In recent, dueling columns published in this space, former Mayor and current Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge and Supervisor Das Williams limned the conflict over building many thousands of new housing units in Santa Barbara. Today, veteran opinion columnist Randy Alcorn analyzes the arguments from an economic and historic perspective).
'By Randy Alcorn
The recent exchange, published by Newsmakers, between former city Mayor Sheila Lodge and county Supervisor Das Williams presents clear examples of rational versus rationalized thinking concerning the eternal issue of housing in Santa Barbara.
Perhaps because she has the advantage of a longer history of deep involvement in Santa Barbara, and no need to appeal to or appease any political clients, Lodge’s thinking on housing is more objective, realistic, and evidence-based than is Williams’.
Anyone who has studied the issue, as Lodge has, knows that Santa Barbara has wrestled with the issue of housing and population growth for generations. Indeed, accounts of city council meetings from the 1940s report the same fears, warnings of impending economic disaster, and moralizing over insufficient housing that we hear today.
Those who study the issue know that demand for housing in Santa Barbara has never been satisfied, and certainly not at prices that everyone and anyone can afford. These realities have never changed.
What can, and is changing, is the singular ambience of Santa Barbara. The threat to this beautiful place is not the lack of housing, it is quite the opposite—too much housing.
A community cancer. As Lodge points out, the more housing that is built to accommodate demand, the more housing is needed to service the additional population. Such unremitting growth is called "cancer" when it attacks a body, and is just as detrimental when it attacks a community.
Williams’ argument for more housing, especially housing "affordable" for all, is that people born here, and seniors who want to stay here should be able to have a home here. Following that logic, "desire" equals "deserve," whereby anything someone wants should somehow be provided for them.
If there is a birthright entitlement to a home in Santa Barbara, is there a birthright entitlement to a yacht simply because your parents had one? And, should there be an AARP discount for rent?
For decades, Chicken Littles have wailed that the local economy will collapse if there is not sufficient affordable workforce housing. And yet, it has not. That is because economies calibrate to their markets.
A trending bromide. The Santa Barbara market scales high, so the resulting cost of living here is among the very highest in the nation.
Those high costs include construction and land, which means there will never be enough “affordable” housing here. Developers and investors are not going to build housing without getting a solid return. Consequently, market rates for housing always prevail.
Sheila Lodge acknowledges this reality, while Williams contends that if a glut of housing is built, prices will come down. He invokes the trending bromide -- build higher, denser, close to public transportation.
If that formula worked the prices of housing in Manhattan would have plummeted long ago.
Next, Williams argues that the local environment is threatened by the increased traffic of workers making long commutes to Santa Barbara in their polluting, gas powered vehicles.
First, nothing impacts an environment more negatively than human population — cars or not. The more people packed into Santa Barbara, the greater the stress on the local environment and on natural resources — particularly water. By the way, that desal plant is not without environmental costs.
Secondly, long commutes to work are not necessarily a function of housing shortages near work-places. Some workers commute because they prefer a particular home location — rural, schools, house size, etc. Nor does everyone relocate every time they change jobs. And, more and more people are now working remotely and need not commute as much or at all.
Anyone truly concerned about climate change and the environment, while advocating for more housing — ergo population — is engaging in self-contradictory thinking.
Push back on Sacramento. And that takes us to Williams’ next rationale for more housing—state mandates that override local growth and zoning ordinances.
If the brain-trust in Sacramento were sincerely concerned about climate change and preserving the exceptional environment of California, they would accept the reality of limits and work to bring the state’s population to an environmentally sustainable number. The state’s current population is twice the size of its safe carrying capacity.
There will never be enough housing or a healthy natural environment by continually packing more people into every nook and cranny of California. The state’s ham-fisted attempt to force more housing on communities should be resisted, not embraced.
Those to whom Williams’ refers as a “small minority” of NIMBYs, resisting efforts to force more housing on them, may not be as small as he wants to believe, especially as Californians began to see their communities and neighborhoods transmogrifying into congested urban jungles of cheek-to-jowl housing and high-rise tenements.
The critical overriding realities of unfettered population growth are almost never addressed whenever the housing issue is discussed.
The empirical evidence of the deleterious consequences of that growth are abundant — horrific wildfires (mostly human caused), dangerously depleted water resources, diminished natural environment, wildlife extinction, soul-sucking traffic, and over-burdened infrastructure.
Bottom line. Not everyone can or should live in Santa Barbara.
People who want housing they can afford must consider other parts of the country. There will never be enough housing here until the place is so jam-packed that people don’t want to live here anymore.
Retired financial executive Randy Alcorn has written opinion columns about Santa Barbara, California and national politics for a host of publications for more than 20 years.
You can reach him by email at email@example.com.
Images: Packed like sardines (IdiomLand.com); Alcorn (Noozhawk).