City employees, community leaders and housing advocates gathered recently to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara.

Congregating in the open courtyard of the Presidio Springs Courtyard on Laguna Street, attendees were invited to move into the project’s community room and browse through historical displays of the agency’s accomplishments.

Old headlines announcing completed developments and profiles of people who had found homes throughout the organization’s 40 years were lined around the room. Now, the agency provides affordable housing to about 3,200 low-income households.

“Back in 1968, the citizens of Santa Barbara said, ‘We need public housing, we need affordable rental housing in our community,” said Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority. City residents passed a voter initiative, but once the ballot measure was approved, there was no agency to manage the properties.

A county housing authority existed at the time, but city officials decided it was time to form a city-specific agency. Bob Foreman, who was appointed in 1969 as the first director of the city Housing Authority, was at the Oct. 23 celebration.

“Public housing gets a bad rap in a lot of communities because it doesn’t look like this,” said Pearson, gesturing to the Spanish-style buildings surrounding the courtyard.

Pearson, who began working for the Housing Authority in 1981 after graduating from UCSB, said he remains committed to the social justice the program espouses.

He recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he met with 20 public-housing directors from across the country to meet with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. “Our reputation is nationally known,” Pearson said.

Customer service has been a priority as well — to tenants, the taxpaying public, the City Council and the neighbors of each development.

“We like to think that we’re going to improve the neighborhood, and we’ve done that in many cases,” Pearson said. “Usually it’s the opposite with public housing.”

Community Environmental Council executive director Dave Davis, the celebration’s keynote speaker, worked at the city of Santa Barbara Community Development Department with Pearson.

When the Housing Authority began, there was some community resistance to the idea of affordable and workforce housing, he said. Now, the agency has become a model that’s really working.

Fewer than 5 percent of Housing Authority residents receive public assistance, according to Davis, and high housing costs and low wages reinforce the need for affordable housing.

“The residents of the Housing Authority provide the backbone of our working community,” Davis said.

Going forward, the agency has several large projects under way. Artisan Court, a 56-unit apart complex serving the homeless, youth aging out of foster care and low-income downtown workers, is expected to be completed by January 2011.

Another 55-unit apartment complex, at 512 Bath St., also is being developed and will serve special-needs populations with supportive services. It is expected to be completed by December 2011.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com.

Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.