Randy Alcorn

The Santa Barbara City Council is considering raising the height limits on buildings to allow more housing to be built on existing land. A city of mostly two- and three-story buildings could become a city of six-story buildings.

And, why stop there? If ever more people want to live in Santa Barbara, build high rises — like Wilshire Towers in Los Angeles.

For Santa Barbara, increasing building height limits to accommodate more population would be like stacking more decks on a small ship in an effort to take on more passengers. The ship rides ever lower in the water, then sinks.

Almost always absent in the perennial discussion of Santa Barbara’s housing issues are common sense and reality.

A hammer forged from an amalgam of misguided morality and insatiable avarice beats down any cogent concerns or troublesome questions. Standard bearers of “social justice” let their passion overwhelm reason, while the usual forces of greed rally to any banner that flies “build, baby, build!”

Because these people-packers are now aided and abetted by myopic, politically reflexive state mandates that oppressively overrule local zoning and building ordinances, stewardship of Santa Barbara’s singular beauty is made all the more challenging.

Few of today’s local politicians enthusiastically embrace that challenge. Most seem reluctant to push back against the people-packers and to openly acknowledge the inconvenient realities of the housing issue here.

Those realities are:

» As long as it remains one of the most desirable places on earth, Santa Barbara will always command high housing prices.

» Santa Barbara can never accommodate all the people who want to live here without destroying what makes it so desirable.

» Santa Barbara does have affordable housing. If it did not, housing would sit vacant because no one could pay for it.

» Santa Barbara does not require ever more population to maintain a vibrant economy.

Sacramento’s foolish edicts notwithstanding, local governments will never be able to guarantee housing for everyone who wants it. Demand is unrelenting, and no one is entitled to a house in Santa Barbara, not even natives.

For the same reasons that not everyone can have a yacht and a slip for it at the Santa Barbara Harbor, not everyone can have a home here.

Housing affordability is relative to desire and location. You may desire a house in Santa Barbara, California, rather than in Bay City, Michigan, but a nice house in Bay City costs a small fraction of what even a bad house in Santa Barbara costs.

If it is a decent house you desire, Michigan may be your better option, but if you insist on having a home on the California coast, you may be out of luck.

Every nice place has an occupancy limit that, when exceeded, ruins its character and diminishes its appeal.

What is Santa Barbara’s limit? Currently, the population is near 92,000. How much more population can Santa Barbara incur before it is transmogrified into just another overrun, overdeveloped, congested warren of gerbil units stacked to the sky?

For decades now, Santa Barbara has gradually added housing by squeezing rows of condos onto deep lots of existing houses, or by shoehorning small apartment buildings into nooks and crannies here and there.

But it’s never enough, is it? Even building that huge apartment complex on Upper State Street and those cheek-to-jowl monstrosities in Goleta hasn’t sated the voracity of the people-packers — or lowered housing prices either.

If you had a dollar for every time “workforce housing” has been used as justification for more building, you could probably buy a house in Santa Barbara. Has adding “workforce housing” ever lowered home prices here? No matter how much of it is built, has it ever been enough?

And, just how many local businesses have actually failed because they lacked a workforce? There is workforce housing. It’s in Lompoc, Santa Maria and Ventura.

“Oh, but the commute.”

What is an acceptable distance to travel for work? Must it be walking distance? Is it two miles, five miles, 10?

Making long commutes to work is not peculiar to Santa Barbara, it is common across the nation. Anyone who accepts a job must consider the commute. Also, as the COVID-19 pandemic has proven, working from home is a very viable option for many.

“Oh, but the local economy will wither without increasing population!”

This may be the most asinine argument made by the people-packers. It posits that an economy is always on the verge of collapse that can only be forestalled by adding more people.

An economy adjusts to its market size. The scale of economic activity does not necessarily determine its vitality. Regardless of the size of a community, local businesses provide goods and services to satisfy most of the needs of the current population.

Of course, there are exceptions. Residents of smaller communities may have to travel to larger communities to get something like brain surgery, or a Lamborghini.

Most economic activity is recurring and doesn’t require an increasing population to thrive. People replace tires, roofs, groceries; they hire plumbers, see doctors, etc. Such cyclical commercial activity is fundamental to the economies of all communities, big or small.

Nevertheless, there are always those who want to increase the population in order to sell more stuff, but the economy won’t collapse because the local Beefy Burger can’t sell more hamburgers.

When employers can no longer attract qualified personnel because of the local cost of living, their options are to raise pay or relocate to less pricey areas. Some businesses relocate and the local economy adjusts.

Santa Barbara is not like Flint, Michigan — overdependent on a major employer whose departure significantly shrinks the local economy. Santa Barbara’s major industry is Santa Barbara, its spectacular beauty and appealing ambience. That industry is threatened by increasing the local population, not by limiting it to a safe number.

Some years ago, wiser stewards of the city set that limit at 85,000. That limit has been exceeded, and the city is not better for it. Santa Barbara was a more pleasant place at 70,000 than it is at 92,000, or would be at 100,000.

Cramming more people onto this sliver of paradise between mountains and sea would forever damage and diminish what makes it so exceptionally attractive. It would further strain limited water resources and burden infrastructure, prompting even more building.

Santa Barbara won’t be made better by making it bigger. Cramming ADUs into existing single-family neighborhoods is folly enough, but raising building height limits would be a towering tragedy.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at randyaalcorn@gmail.com, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.