A homeless Santa Barbara resident sits in a State Street storefront.
A homeless Santa Barbara resident sits in a State Street storefront. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

In the latest blow to the city of Santa Barbara’s planning policies, the civil Grand Jury issued a report criticizing the city’s ability to build affordable housing, suggesting that it is inconsistent, lacks leadership and is stuck in the thinking of yesteryear. 

“The City Council needs a change in vision,” the report states. “It has spent the recent years guarding the interests of certain residents and neglecting the rich diversity of people that the city celebrates. The city of Santa Barbara needs to show that it will embrace affordable housing or inclusionary housing, as it did decades ago. Council members have been silent regarding recent low-cost housing developments, and those building efforts have floundered.”

The June 24 report follows a June 2 report that determined the city’s Community Development Department was adversarial with the business community and that the department lacked leadership. 

Community Development Director George Buell, who recently announced his resignation, said: “I will acknowledge that some of the findings and recommendations are well-founded.  However, staff is concerned with a number of others that require analysis, and we are in the process of doing that work now. Draft responses will be presented to the City Council in mid-August.”

About 20,000 people commute from Ventura County and northern Santa Barbara into the city, where the median price of a house is $1.2 million. The jobs-housing imbalance has led to massive delays in commute times from Ventura County and a multimillion-dollar, decades-long project to widen Highway 101. Santa Barbara created a high-density housing program that led to new apartments for the first time in 40 years, but the homes are market-rate and have done little to help low- and middle-income people find housing in the city. 

While the names and faces of the politicians change over the years, the lack of affordable housing in the city has become as much as part of the city’s lexicon as the beach, the mountains and the red-tile roofs. 

The latest report points more blame in the direction of the City Council, and for “prevaricated” or evasive leadership. 

“This indecisiveness has set one neighbor against another,” the report states. “Now each councilmember has the opportunity to show that for the sake of the entire city, they can welcome housing for all those thousands of people who contribute by working here but cannot enjoy living here.”

The affordable housing direction has been inconsistent, the report states.

“For the past few years the City Council has wavered in its affordable housing policies,” the report states. “It now needs to define a more certain path in terms of planning, building, financing, and leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic will deflate the budget in so many ways that the only way forward will be to act in groundbreaking ways.”

The Grand Jury, which is made up volunteers within each of the five supervisorial districts, made several recommendations on how to improve the housing situation. 

Among the findings, the report suggests the City Council should:

  • Develop and implement a plan for the creation of low- and middle-income housing units. 
  • Obtain or create continuous reliable sources of funding to facilitate the development of low- and middle-income housing units.
  • Identify and obtain publicly owned properties that would be appropriate for low- and middle-income housing units. 
  • Instruct the Community Development Department to revise the zoning ordinance to allow for cost-effective alternative building types, such as modular housing, small homes, and 3-D printed housing.
  • Require inclusionary or low- and middle-income housing units when approving housing projects with ten units or more. 

In another report on the issue of homelessness issued June 25, the Grand Jury stated that the cities within the county have not done enough to identify sites to build housing for the homeless.

The report also states that cities in the county have not done enough to build permanent supportive housing for the most vulnerable homeless.

“Santa Barbara County is in the midst of a homeless crisis that long predates the challenges of the current COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. “People are roaming the streets with no home of their own, and there is an increase of people living in their cars, camping in parks, or sleeping on the sofas of friends and relatives. Multiple families are often sharing cramped quarters.”

The report blasts the county for the depth of the problem.

“Shamefully, Santa Barbara County has one of the highest rates of homeless school-age children and youth in the state,” the report states.

More collaboration is needed.

“Despite the hard work and dedication of local charities and government workers, homeless rates are increasing,” the report states. “Stronger leadership at the city and county levels, a consistent source of funding, and community support are required to help alleviate the human suffering caused by this situation. Santa Barbara County is a wealthy county and needs to assume control of this problem and solve it.”

The city has 90 days to respond to the Grand Jury reports. 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.