I received a call Saturday from my wife, who told me to turn the radio to AM 990. She said I had to hear what Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum was saying on her show about the cityʼs fast-tracking of permits for homes lost in the Tea Fire.
The blaze that ravaged through the hills of Santa Barbara last year destroyed 230 structures, and 151 of those homes fall within the jurisdiction of the city of Santa Barbara. As of Friday, 78 homeowners had applied for permits to rebuild their homes and their lives. Of those 78, only 24 building permits have been issued.
Blum said she was thrilled by the progress. Were my wife and I the only ones listening who thought that was ridiculously absurd? Blum was thrilled that 24 permits had been issued? What about the other 54? How did those homeowners feel the city was doing on its promise to fast-track the permitting process?
Promises are more easily made than fulfilled, but this clear failure to fulfill the fast-track promise would be less insulting if the mayor and other city leaders would admit the obvious and say that a year after the Tea Fire, itʼs unacceptable to have so many permits pending. People are waiting to move on with the process of rebuilding their homes and their lives.
The city of Santa Barbara has a rigorous process for obtaining building permits. I know something about this because my wife worked with one of the area’s most prestigious architects in Santa Barbara for a number of years and now has her own company that provides architectural design services. Along with the natural beauty we started with, the rigorous review process has contributed greatly to making Santa Barbara truly one of the most desirable places to live in the world.
I say that because I know the first criticism Iʼll receive for writing this is that I want to turn Santa Barbara over to the developers and forfeit the quaintness that characterizes our community. That claim could not be further from the truth. What I do want is to bring our elected and appointed government officials back to reality. I am all for reasonable and well-planned regulations and procedures. However, whether at City Hall, the state house or the Capitol building, there seems to be a disconnect. Our politicians have forgotten that public policy affects peopleʼs lives.
Public policy is not an obscure, theoretical discussion toward an ambiguous end. Public policy deals with people and their ability to pay the rent or the mortgage, to put food on the table, to provide for their children, to build a business and a life, or, in the case of the Tea Fire permitting process, to put people back in a home they can call their own.
The Tea Fire building permits — or the lack thereof — are just a local example of a national problem. Our government no longer serves the people. Instead, the people are at the mercy of the government. President Ronald Reagan could not have been more right when he said the most feared words in the English language are “Iʼm from the government, and Iʼm here to help.”
To be fair, not all of the permits requested are slam-dunk approvals. Some owners are seeking to make substantial changes, and others are continuing to work with their insurance companies. But how can Blum be happy when 54 families are ready to begin rebuilding and the city continues to make them wait? What would 54 more building permits mean to local contractors and tradesmen? What would it mean to architectural firms that have cut hours, pay and benefits? What would it mean to landscaping companies? What would it mean to my friend Sam Berejikian, who runs a small business, and scores of other small-business owners just like him? How many jobs would 54 more building permits create in a county that has lost 6,700 jobs dating back to August 2007?
Fifty-four more building permits would be real economic stimulus, not the spend, borrow and tax formula offered by the business-as-usual approach to the challenges of our time. And 54 more building permits would put 54 families back in homes they can call their own after a devastating loss I canʼt even begin to fathom.
— Clark Vandeventer is a social entrepreneur and is the founder and chairman of The Vandeventer Group. He’s committed to developing practical ideas that make government work and make government work for us.