Santa Barbara doesn’t care about homeless people. You may have thought a city that has seen practically no decrease in its homeless population over the past five years would have an interest in building more affordable housing. But you would be wrong.

Cassidy Block

Cassidy Block

Instead, the city and its residents wield the Santa Barbara Police Department as a bludgeon to harass and torment the homeless population. In July, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance designed to “crack down on nuisance crimes.” In other words, the city wants to arrest homeless people for sitting and sleeping on the sidewalk.

But even when homeless people have the ability to move off the sidewalk and into their cars, the city insists on enforcing ordinances against living in vehicles. Those who live in their cars on the street can be fined or have their cars towed, which not only deprives them of a place to sleep and one of their most valuable possessions, but also reflects the very cruel way in which Santa Barbara treats its homeless residents.

Because the City Council continues to twiddle its thumbs and hide behind the police as opposed to actually dealing with the issue of homelessness, local nongovernmental organizations have had to step in.

One, New Beginnings Counseling Center, established a program in the mid-2000s that provides 133 personal parking spaces for homeless people across Santa Barbara County. Homeless residents who manage to obtain a parking space are also enrolled in services that help them find and move into apartments.

Yet the initiative has serious shortcomings. Applicants must have a current license, car insurance and registration. This is a patently absurd (and unrealistically expensive) requirement that greatly limits the potential reach of the program.

The requirements also carry the implication that only certain homeless people are deserving enough of a safe place to sleep. Those enrolled in the Safe Parking Program also have to leave their spots in the morning and can only return again at night; being able to stay in one place is a privilege the city won’t allow.

But having a safe, comfortable place to wake up and return to is a basic right that should be afforded to all, regardless of one’s ability to pay.

It should be intuitively obvious that the private housing market is not the antidote. Santa Barbara’s “crisis level” 0.5 percent vacancy rate fully reflects the callousness of money-grubbing landlords who have no qualms about charging $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

Thus, we are left with only one solution: build more public housing. I propose building government-municipal housing, an incredibly successful approach to public housing that has been adopted in several countries and studied by numerous think tanks, including the People’s Policy Project.

Municipal housing is far superior and cheaper than private housing. It works like this: cities can finance the building of new apartments from a combination of municipal bonds, tax subsidies like the already existing Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and loans from the federal government.

Public housing is also cheaper to build than private housing because government debt interest payments are lower than those from private lenders, and city governments typically already own a sizable portion of their land anyway.

Taking away the profit incentive from housing construction, lower interest payments on debt, and minimal land purchasing costs will save Santa Barbara tons of cash that it can then put back into municipal services.

It’s also more spatially efficient to build public housing, as private developers tend to construct high-rise luxury apartments that often go vacant. On the other hand, public housing construction focuses on building smaller, middle-income units that won’t turn Santa Barbara into a microcosm of downtown Los Angeles.

Best of all, public housing turns control of city land and housing assets over to the city, which gives Santa Barbara more flexibility in controlling its housing supply, prevents the wealthy from slurping up any potential profits, and shuts down any potential complaints from NIMBYs opposed to future housing construction.

Singapore, Sweden and Vienna have all implemented some form of public housing with great success.

And don’t you dare tell me the city doesn’t have enough money. If the Santa Barbara Police Department can get a whopping $80 million to build one — yes, literally only one — police station, Santa Barbara has no excuse for not diverting funds toward public housing.

By building public housing in Santa Barbara, the city can house its more than 1,500 homeless people, take power away from predatory landlords, and serve as an inspiration to cities across California that continue to face dire homelessness crises of their own.

It’s time for Santa Barbara County to start caring about homeless people.

— Cassidy Block is a second-year undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara studying the History of Public Policy. The opinions expressed are his own.