The foremost issue discussed during Santa Barbara’s mayoral race has been housing — mainly there not being enough of it for people who want to live here, and at a price they can afford.
Essentially, this issue is about population growth, a concern that has haunted Santa Barbara politics for decades.
While all arguments for and against increasing housing are made out of self-interest, the arguments for are also short-sighted, disingenuous and, ultimately, destructive for Santa Barbara.
All the candidates express similar sentiments about preserving the unique character of Santa Barbara, and with the exception of Cathy Murillo, seem to appreciate that the extraordinary ambience of Santa Barbara cannot survive much more influx of population.
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And while Hal Conklin, Frank Hotchkiss, Bendy White and Angel Martinez all agree that demand for housing here can never be satisfied, Hotchkiss is the most honestly realistic about it when he observes that there are natural and geographic limits to how much growth this area can sustain, and that “workforce housing” must be found in nearby communities.
Those “frank” observations are typically greeted by jeers from the “we-demand” contingent in the audience who believe that they are entitled to live here, and the fact they can’t is an injustice that government should correct. Murillo is their champion — a chicken in every pot and a home in Santa Barbara for everyone.
Martinez, meanwhile, voices a subtly solicitous version of the economic argument for growth. He posits that because of the dearth of affordable local housing, businesses struggle to attract and retain talent. The implied threat being that these businesses will choose to relocate rather than pay sufficiently higher salaries.
I have heard this argument here for 45 years now. Some businesses do leave, but others arise. That happens in communities across the country.
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara is still standing and, considering its residential real estate market, is more in demand than ever.
Economic arguments for growth are the most deceitfully fallacious, but are the favorite of the forces of greed who continue to claim — in spite of empirical evidence and common sense — that a community will wither and die if it is not constantly adding more people.
A city of 50,000 people is no more or less economically vibrant than is a city of 100,000 people. It is a matter of scale, not economic survival.
Most economic activity is repetitive — i.e. groceries, health care, new tires, new roofs, etc. — and will sustain a static population. But, the insatiable forces of greed always want to sell more stuff, so they push for expanding the local market — more housing, more people.
Some Santa Barbara residents express a more personally emotional economic argument for growth — their children, born and raised in Santa Barbara, need both well-paying jobs and affordable housing here so they can stay.
Such arguments are poignant but selfishly short-sighted; whatever the rationale for packing more people into Santa Barbara, the negative consequences will be the same.
Imagine a fine, comfortable cruise ship with an occupancy limit of 1,000 passengers that is obliged to take on another 500, 750 or 1,000 more. Even if these are the family and friends of the original passengers, how fine and comfortable is the overloaded ship?
The extraordinary character of Santa Barbara won’t maintain without an occupancy limit.
Aside from Murillo, all the candidates for mayor likely understand this, yet, with the apparent exception of Hotchkiss, they either openly support more housing or straddle the issue while invoking the name of Pearl Chase.
In the past, far-sighted city councils endeavored to constrain growth in Santa Barbara. They set a limit on population, which has now been exceeded — with predictable consequences.
I invite each mayoral candidate to tell us what you think the population of Santa Barbara should be. How many more should we take on board? Please, e-mail your answer to me.
How many more gardens will we have to cover with gravel to provide water for more housing? How much more sludge-like traffic will we have to endure so more folks can reside here?
How much more infrastructure maintenance, policing, firefighting, medical facilities, sewage treatment and schools will we need for the additional residents? How high and dense will we have to build to pack them all in?
Why are want-to-be residents more important than the established residents who have worked hard — or were fortunate enough — to afford a place here? Why should the exceptional ambience of this city be forfeit to greed and envious entitlement?
Conklin, a self-confessed environmentalist and the most articulate, assured and, perhaps, perceptive mayoral candidate, made an astute observation critical of the city’s inconsistent policy-making regarding marijuana dispensaries and smoking bans. That observation easily applies to the city’s inconsistent housing and environmental policies.
As he proudly points out, Santa Barbara is arguably the epicenter of the modern environmental movement. As an active leader in that movement, it crusades to protect its natural environment from the depredations of industry, particularly the petroleum industry.
Yet, the city either discounts or disregards the ultimate, overwhelming source of environmental degradation — human activity. The more people, the more pollution, the greater the stress on the environment and on limited resources.
Construing constant, insatiable demand as a “housing crisis” permits local politicians to promote more workforce housing, affordable housing or inclusionary housing. But, whatever euphemism used to justify it, it’s all people-packing that will eventually destroy what makes Santa Barbara so desirable.
Inconsistent policies undermine the very environmental efforts and goals the city boasts of. While hypocrisy walks hand in hand with politics, stupidity stumbles all over itself.
There will never be enough housing without limits on demand, i.e. population growth. What there will be are more buildings, more traffic, more stress on already neglected infrastructure, limited water becoming ever more precious and expensive, and more effluvia from human activity.
Whoever is mayor of Santa Barbara will, along with the rest of the City Council, confront that reality.
Complicating matters is Gov. Jerry Brown and California’s typically short-sighted Legislature passing ham-fisted laws essentially forcing population growth on local communities — another glaring example of inconsistent policy-making whereby the state’s environmental policies are contradicted by its pro-growth policies.
Which mayoral candidate is most inclined and able to protect Santa Barbara from the people-packing greed and stupidity that would ultimately destroy the place?
Hotchkiss, Conklin or White? Maybe.
Martinez? Probably not enough.
Murillo? Kiss the place goodbye.
Those who really care about preserving this city must rally around one of the first three. I’m going with Hotchkiss.
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— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.