While Santa Barbara sits at the bottom of the lists for affordable housing nationally, we are at the top of the list for innovative programs addressing our needs.
There is probably no one reading this article who I need to tell that Santa Barbara is one of the most exclusive and expensive cities in the United States and that housing does not come cheaply here. Many of us seem to just accept this as, as we like to say, “the costs of living the dream in paradise!”
But those costs are so high that many working families are forced to double up in housing, hundreds of mentally challenged people live on the streets because there is not enough affordable housing to absorb them, and people must scrimp on health care and food in order to stay housed.
My goal is to briefly discuss the “affordable housing crisis” in the United States, what that looks like here locally, and to highlight some innovative solutions that our community is finding to address these important concerns.
The Affordable Housing Crisis
There is an “affordable housing crisis” in the United States, according to a recent New York Times editorial (Dec. 4). Only about a quarter of low-income families who qualify for rental assistance receive it. About 9 million households teeter on the verge of homelessness.
Currently, about 5 million households that otherwise would not be able to afford livable housing receive federal housing assistance. More than half of these households are headed by an elderly or disabled person. More than a third are families that include children.
Most of these households receiving federal assistance are “extremely how income,” meaning they earn less than a third of the median income in the areas where they live.
How bad are things in the United States? In 2011, about 8.5 million families paid more than half of their incomes for their housing. And over the last decades, while the need for affordable housing has grown, the number of units has actually decreased.
Affordable Housing in Santa Barbara
I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world — Santa Barbara, Calif. Blessed with a Mediterranean climate, nestled between foothills and ocean, with gorgeous views of the Channel Islands, we boast having more than 300 days of sunshine each year. East Beach is internationally recognized as one of the finest places to enjoy sun and waves.
Our exquisite restaurants and hotels are often filled to capacity with big-spending tourists from all corners of the globe. Our toniest communities, Montecito and Hope Ranch, have multitudes of multimillionaires, moguls and movie stars. We refer to ourselves proudly as “the American Riviera.”
And our housing costs are among the highest in the nation. Many working families struggle to find a place where they can live. A recent check of Craigslist Santa Barbara found the prices of studios at around $1,200, one-bedrooms renting for $1,500 and two-bedrooms for $2,000 per month.
Affordable housing is defined as housing that does not exceed 30 percent of one’s total income. Thus, to rent a $1,500 one-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara and have it be “affordable,” one would need to earn $60,000 per year. With a medium income of $72,300 for 2011 for Santa Barbara, that means many people are unable to afford the decent and up-to-code housing they deserve in our fair city. If half of all income-earners fall below $72,000, then a sizable percentage fall below $60,000, and thus cannot “afford” a one-bedroom.
How bad are things in Santa Barbara? Well, only about 8 percent of the city’s 37,000 dwelling units are affordable for the long term. That means that a huge majority of us (92 percent), at many income levels, pay more than 30 percent of our income for housing costs.
The working poor of Santa Barbara struggle to exist! Working multiple jobs and scrimping any way they can, they often use a majority of their income to pay for housing.
About 4 percent of tenants in Santa Barbara pay affordable rent under the federal Section * Choice Voucher Program.
Let me further detail what the housing crisis looks like in Santa Barbara.
» Our rents are among the highest in the nation.
» Our occupancy rates are extremely low.
» The length of our “Section B Voucher” list is so long that people now wait four to six years for housing.
» Two years ago, we counted more than 1,000 people on the streets of the South Coast of Santa Barbara County.
Our city’s “Affordable Housing Policies and Procedures of the City of Santa Barbara” put out by the Housing and Development Division lays out the problems and some innovative solutions. The crisis affects all residents of this city. Many people live in overcrowded and substandard situations on budgets that are so stretched that other basic necessities must become foregone.
Finding Innovative Solutions
Our city has pumped $127.2 million into the local economy in the form of grants and loans for affordable housing. Three housing agencies, in particular, stand out as doing an outstanding job in attempting to fill the gaps: the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara, People’s Self-Help Housing and the Community Housing Corporation.
A central goal of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara is to develop additional housing opportunities for the community. Headed by Rob Pearson, who many see as a visionary for his tireless efforts to expand our supply of low-income housing units, HACSB has recently completed several large, beautiful housing projects in downtown Santa Barbara, including Artisan Court on Cota Street and the Bradley Apartments.
These buildings, which tend to house a mix of special-needs individuals, downtown workers and low-income people, are often stunning architectural projects that do much to improve the neighborhoods in which they are nestled.
HACSB is known for its community partnerships with other nonprofits. Artisan Court and the Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Shelter are sought to house youth aging out of foster care and at risk of homelessness. The Garden Street apartments are a collaboration with the Mental Wellness Center.
The El Carrillo apartments have taken dozens of people right off the street and given them supportive housing — that is, housing with basic psychiatric services, such as counseling, life skills education, addiction treatment, etc.
Peoples’ Self-Help Housing also provides affordable housing and programs for low-income families, seniors and individuals with special needs. It operates throughout Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. With 1,400 affordable rental units, it is a major player in the local low-income housing scene.
The Community Housing Corporation also owns more than 300 local low-income housing units, including the Hotel de Riviera (an 18-month residential program for dually diagnosed individuals) and the New Faulding Hotel (a single-room occupancy hotel with supportive services).
For areas outside of Santa Barbara, one should also explore the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara.
Housing Those Experiencing Homelessness
There are several programs that attempt to address the needs of those living on the streets.
The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) offers financial assistance for rent due, deposits, utilities, moving costs, legal aid and mediation to prevent eviction. Both the Casa Esperanza Homeless Center and Transition House run aspects of the program. The services are available to people who have an income of 50 percent or less than the area medium income, and are at risk of becoming homeless or are currently homeless.
Every two years, our community holds a federally-mandated count of all people in the county who are experiencing homelessness. Two years ago, our community merged this count with a brief survey/interview of medical, psychiatric and social needs assessment. This “Vulnerability Index” ranks people on the street according to the severity of their issues. Administered by Common Ground Santa Barbara, and now backed by the new Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), our community has pledged to attempt to house the most vulnerable, and thus far more than 80 or the most sever cases have been housed.
One of the things that we are learning as a community is that housing those on the streets is often not enough — we need to place become into “supportive counseling” in which counseling services, addiction treatment specialists and other supportive services ensure that someone is able to stay housed.
Affordable Housing and Social Justice
The United Nation Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most forward-looking documents of the 20th century, states that housing is a human right. All people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, age, ability, etc., deserve to have a roof over their head. Social justice demands that all people be guaranteed access to basic life-sustaining services, such as housing, health care, etc.
Affordable housing gives people a sense of hope in the future. Our ultimate goal should be to ensure that housing is available to everyone in Santa Barbara because it will enhance their lives. Moreover, it saves lives. Several years ago, we did not have a safe haven for those on the streets during inclement weather, and several of us in the community helped found the Freedom Warming Centers. The number of deaths on the street due to hypothermia has drastically decreased.
These are desperate times for individuals and families. Many have lost their jobs and their homes, and have been cast into the streets to fend for themselves. Often these events have happened through no fault of their own.
While we continually come up with money to fight foreign wars, we long ago gave up the war on poverty. The dearth of affordable housing in Santa Barbara is not just an issue for the poor and homeless. Middle class and even well-to-do people suffer here. What would buy a three-bedroom house in many parts of the country is what we pay for a studio.
Let us as a community recommit to building more affordable housing and know that we already have some very innovative solutions in operation.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).