By Amy Reinholds
The situation is dire for people with annual incomes under $132,640—particularly renters—who need to move and seek available housing in the south coast market, according to data from a housing forum hosted by the League of Women voters of Santa Barbara last week. Yet despite the grim statistics, the South Coast Housing Forum on March 15 revealed many projects underway, creative collaborations, and ideas that are in the early stages of becoming realities.
The forum brought together more than ten speakers from renters groups to staff and elected officials from the Santa Barbara Unified School District and Santa Barbara County. A total of 87 people attended the online meeting.
“At the heart of it what we’re talking about is our neighbors, our relationships among each other in this shared community,” said Rev. Julia Hamilton of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara who opened the forum. “We’re not talking about density as an abstract term. We’re talking about the places where people live and work and raise their families.”
HARD NUMBERS AND DIFFICULT STORIES
The forum began with hard numbers about the housing market, and the difficult stories about renters trying to stay in the community where they grew up.
Lisa Plowman, Director of Planning and Development, Santa Barbara County presented statistics that the county collected for the 2023-2031 Housing Element Update for the unincorporated county. Based on the anticipated median home price of $967,590 in 2023 to purchase a home in Santa Barbara County and avoid being cost-burdened (meaning spending more than 30 percent of monthly income on housing) requires an annual income of $328,000. Even with a 2-income household, that’s challenging, Plowman said, and only 8% of renters on south coast in position to purchase a home. To rent a 3-bedroom home and avoid being cost-burdened, a household needs an annual income of $132,640.
“We are seeing most renters, both English- and Spanish-speaking, and other language-speaking, are all facing a very, very tight market, where people [who own rental housing] are trying to make more and more passive income out of this basic necessity for people,” said Wendy Santamaria, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “In turn we’re seeing people with stagnant wages getting pushed out, because [property owners] want to raise the rents.”
Plowman’s presentation showed average wages across the county as $33,000/year for farming, $36,000/year for food service and prep, $70,000/year for teachers, $104,000/year for architects and engineers, $108,000/year for health practitioners and tech personnel, and $120,000/yer for legal profession.
Hilda Maldonado, Superintendent of Schools for the Santa Barbara Unified School District, said that she invited teachers and staff to raise issues of concern related to schools, and “overwhelmingly I heard housing costs.” She was asked “Superintendent can you help us? It’s becoming impossible for us to stay here.”
“Some of them shared with me that they’ve needed to take on two jobs,” Maldonado continued. “They told me stories of having to work in the evenings for Doordash or other jobs to make ends meet.” She noted that paraprofessionals and teaching assistant jobs don’t pay as much as teacher salaries, but “I heard from a teacher, junior high school teacher, an amazing teacher, who shared with me that all she could find was a garage to rent, to live in.”
Maldonado’s presentation included the average price of two-bedroom apartment on Craigslist was $4,464 a month for the City of Santa Barbara, explaining that applicants would have to make at least $178,560 a year to qualify (Crediting the Santa Barbara Independent, December 2022). Average one-bedroom apartments in Santa Barbara Craigslist were $2,935 a month, and applicants would have to make at least $117,400 a year to qualify.
“Our highest paid teachers would need to also be paying $15,000 to $20,000 more a year to get into a two-bedroom apartment,” she said, “Our biggest concern is teachers leaving because of housing costs.”
SIDE EFFECTS OF A TIGHT RENTAL MARKET AND TENANTS RIGHTS
The high-priced housing market brings about other challenges like overcrowding, fear of reporting bad conditions, and out-of-town investment property businesses that treat housing as a commodity.
Maria Navarro, a policy advocate at CAUSE, said that some tenants who might be lucky enough to rent something like a one-bedroom apartment that’s only $2,000, but “If you increase the rent 10%, that’s $2,400 more a year, a lot of money for a person who is working in our service industry, or is paid even minimum wage. You know they have to at that point overcrowd that room to be able to make the rent.”
“The housing landscape is so tough right now that it’s forcing people to put up with horrendous habitability,” said Stanley Tzankov, Santa Barbara Tenants Union Co-Founder. “They’re putting up with mold, and maybe are packing in tighter with more and more family members living in smaller units.”
Another top concern raised at the forum was how to strengthen tenant protections. According to state law, there are two situations when property owners can end the tenancy: to remodel a rental for major work like plumbing, electrical, or structural work that requires a permit or dealing with dangerous materials like mold, lead paint, or asbestos. But this is allowed only if they can’t do the work while the tenant is still living there, and if the work requires the property to be vacant more than 30 days. Landlords must provide relocation fees for the tenants equal to one month’s rent. CAUSE and the Tenants Union have been seeing this used as a loophole to get tenants to leave before a lease is over and for property owners to get more rent, often referred to as “renovictions.”
“These are attempts to circumvent even the 10% annual increase right, mostly out of these huge companies from out of town,” Tzankov said. “They’re not your ‘mom and pop’ landlords.”
“We need your voices to speak up and urge counsel to put an end to voluntary, non-habitability related evictions for renovations,” he urged attendees.
Santamaria said she’s seen “entire buildings of Spanish-speaking tenants who have been there for decades” pushed out. “It can be because they illegally raise the rent past the 10% state cap,” she said, and then people leave. The same state law from the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 also limits annual rent increases for tenants renewing leases to no more than 10%. “A lot of landlords have successfully been able to ignore that state law and just raise the rents to however much they want to make,” Santamaria said.
CREATIVE COLLABORATIONS AND PROJECTS UNDERWAY
The Santa Barbary Unified School District and Santa Barbara County have started some new collaborations and are exploring land in their jurisdiction to create their own employee housing.
Maldonado said she was motivated by the survey within her district, and she reached out Hope, Goleta, and Carpinteria school districts to join a coalition because “we’re all facing the same issues as employers in a school district.” They wrote a letter to elected officials: “We just wanted to emphasize how hard it is for us to recruit retain and support our employees who serve our families and children.” The Santa Barbara Unified School District also started its own ad hoc committee “exploring places that we have in Santa Barbara that are owned by the school district, and looking into possibly creating our own affordable housing for our employees.”
Plowman said the county is also looking at county-owned land as options for affordable housing. As part of the state-required Housing Element Update plan, Plowman said that they received 450 comment letters and have identified approximately 15 new possible sites (seven of those owned by the county) that are going to be added to maps for the County Supervisors to consider to meet the state requirements for future housing site planning. She said that when the county owns the land, there are more options for looking at rentals for specific lower income levels, instead of going to private developers who would build more market-rate homes.
Maldonado gave an example of working with a developer on the Tatum property near San Marcos High School that the Santa Barbara Unified School District sold a hear and half ago. She said it will have 69 homes assigned to affordable housing out of a total of 344 units. She said the district just recently renegotiated with the developer, Red Tail, to turn 13 of those into units for “very low income” category.
“I think one of the biggest takeaways from today’s forum is that housing is a more comprehensive topic than just supply and demand,” said Gabe Escobedo, Santa Barbara Unified School District Board Trustee and a former chair of the City of Santa Barbara Planning Commission. “We certainly need to build more housing, and a lot of it at a variety of income levels. But it’s also what happens to that housing when it’s here, and who that housing serves.”
“There are policy solutions for a lot of the issues that we have talked about,” Escobedo continued. “When you think about this housing element cycle, and you think forward to 2030—Yes, this stuff doesn’t happen overnight, but we’re building the foundation for decades to come. These issues didn’t happen overnight, and they’re not gonna get solved overnight. So we need to be in it for the long haul.”
Other collaborations mentioned at the forum include:
Ways for the City of Santa Barbara Housing Opportunities, Preservation, and Equity (HOPE) Fund to be used to build deed-restricted housing affordable to people of lower incomes, in progress now before city committees.
The Santa Barbara Tenant’s Union wants to build a network of tenant associations, encouraging renters to get to know their neighbors in multifamily properties.
Laura Capps, Santa Barbara County Supervisor, is working with Communify and the United Way to make sure that eligible families get access to Earned Income TaxCredit, which provides as much as $2,400 a year, which can help with overall emergency funds, so people can stay in their homes, or provide a safety net when they have to move. Right now only 75% of eligible families in the county have received it.
Watch for more articles in the future about these collaborations and projects, as well as projects from groups on the south coast.
The 90-minute forum couldn’t include every group that is working on affordable housing. Current subsidized affordable housing providers like the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara or nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County weren’t part of this forum, and neither were private businesses or funding sources.
If you missed the 2023 South Coast Housing Forum, English and Spanish videos are available on the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara YouTube channel.
Amy Reinholds is a content designer and journalist who lives in Goleta.