Which Way, Santa Barbara?
Continued from the previous page
Jobs in the South, housing in the North—if Santa Barbara County is going to face its future, it may have to flip the script.
By Daryl Kelley
June 6, 2013
he line forms early for commuters catching the Clean Air Express from a softball complex in Santa Maria. It’s only 5:15 a.m., the moon is still up and dawn has just broken, but that’s when the first big blue coach pulls out and heads south.
Architect Rolegio Solis, 35, is already there, waiting for his bus to downtown Santa Barbara.
“This cuts four hours out of every day, and I’ve been doing it for six years,” Solis says. “I want to be able to afford a house down there. But my firm just developed some of what they call affordable units, and the pricing started at $500,000.”
Now, Solis is on the cusp of a move to an apartment in Santa Barbara that is far more expensive than his current $900-a-month rental in Santa Maria.
“I just have to do it,” he says. “I have a 2-month-old baby boy, and I need to be near my home and spend more time with him.”
Though he is a professional with a middle-class income, Solis figures it will take him another five years of scrimping and saving before he can consider buying a home in Santa Barbara.
Solis is one of more than 200,000 passengers each year who board commuter buses making 12 round trips a day from Santa Maria and Lompoc to Goleta and Santa Barbara. Monthly fares are $150—a deal—and buses are often nearly full, especially when gas prices go up. Solis’ experience illustrates an issue that has troubled local officials for decades: how to retain the South Coast’s dwindling middle class.
It’s a problem that has only grown worse over time as the middle class has been increasingly priced out of the housing market, creating a demographic barbell with a growing number of older, affluent, longtime homeowners on one end, a swelling population of low-income workers crowded into rentals on the other and not much in the middle to balance things out.
It wasn’t always the case. In 1960, a full half of all South Coast households were middle income. By 2000 that share had shrunk to 35 percent and has continued to slowly decline over the past decade, according to the 2010 U.S. census (the most recent).
Meanwhile, the number of South Coast residents between the age of 25 and 44—prime employment years—dropped from a third of the population to 24.5 percent during the past two decades. This group now owns just 15 percent of South Coast homes.
As you might expect, given these trends, two-thirds of all workers in the city of Santa Barbara live elsewhere, according to the census, bringing nearly 25,000 incoming commuters to the South Coast each work day, along with traffic snarls and smog.
“Santa Barbara is losing what made it good, and it will be much harder to move here and live here in the future,” said Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast and a Santa Barbara trends analyst for 35 years. “It’s hard to get mid-managers to move here because they can’t afford it. Children are leaving and can’t afford to come back. Housing prices are among the highest in the country, and we don’t build very many. We don’t develop much industry anymore. We’ve had quite a few companies born here, but then they leave because they can’t expand. Workers can’t afford the high cost of living. Santa Barbara is a satisfied, stagnant community.”
If Schniepp’s appraisal sounds like a call to action, it’s one that has been heard by government officials both reacting to and planning for the sweeping demographic changes in the county and the state.
Indeed, if economic balance is to be restored to communities and livability to workers’ lives, and if employers are to be able to hire the most qualified people, planners say their most pressing issue is the imbalance between the concentration of jobs in the south and affordable housing in the north. It is an issue that must be dealt with if local governments are to meet state-mandated housing and emissions reductions and not suffer the consequences for failing to do so.
The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, the planning agency that represents all eight local cities and the county, recently released a long-range plan to address these and other issues. The draft plan is scheduled for debate this summer. The question is whether local elected officials have the political will to meet the challenges.
“The jobs-housing imbalance is a huge problem, and the question is, What are we going to do about it? Will the decision-makers come through and adopt a plan? It’s a cliff-hanger,” said Peter Imhoff, deputy director of planning for SBCAG.
Amid furious debate, the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta and the County of Santa Barbara have proposed or adopted planning changes that call for more high-density housing that workers might be able to afford. But those changes are under persistent attack by groups fighting to preserve their communities as they are now.
Yet change is already happening. For decades, Santa Barbara County has steadily become poorer, older, more ethnically diverse and, of course, less friendly to middle-class families.
anta Barbara County, with its jaw-dropping wealth, aching poverty and physical beauty, reflects California as a whole. Like the state, this county is increasingly Latino, both in the inland north and the coastal south. A large majority of the county’s children are Latino, even in the south, they comprise just over 55 percent of public school students. Santa Maria, the county’s largest city, is 73 percent Latino, while Santa Barbara is 39 percent.
Despite the growing Latino population throughout the county, the conservative, agricultural north and liberal, urban south could hardly be more different.
In the north, vast expanses of prime farmland fan out to the horizon, much as they do in the San Joaquin Valley. Meanwhile, the South Coast could be a postcard snapped in the French Riviera: Its mountain backdrop frames ridgelines dotted with red-tiled mansions and wooded estates owned by the super-rich; its stylized downtown and harbor attract throngs of visitors from throughout the world.
The more affordable, land-rich north has been shaped by development-friendly policies and explosive growth, as green row crops have given way to pink, stucco subdivisions snatched up by commuters who couldn’t afford homes in the Santa Barbara area or in San Luis Obispo County. At the same time, the South Coast has hardly been growing at all because of decades-old restrictions on both commercial development and housing construction.
North County, home to many immigrant laborers, is much poorer and less educated, with about 15 percent of adults over age 25 holding at least a bachelor’s degree compared to about 43 percent in the south, according to the 2010 census. Correspondingly, about 30 percent of South County households make at least $100,000 annually, while just 13 percent do in the north. And nearly 26 percent of all North County households earn less than $25,000 a year, while about 18 percent of South County households live in such severe poverty. (The federal poverty line for a family of four is about $23,000.)
It may surprise some how many struggle to stay afloat in the shadow of the lovely Mediterranean facades of downtown Santa Barbara. More than half of the households in the postal zip code 93101, which surrounds lower State Street, have incomes of less than $50,000. A quarter earn less than $25,000.
Maria Garcia, 39, has lived on the Westside near the 101 Freeway and downtown for 13 years. She’s seen it change as aging two-bedroom cottages have been cleaned up and sold to professionals trying to wedge their way into home ownership.
“There’s been a lot of sales, and people are taking more pride in the neighborhood,” said Garcia one recent morning, standing before two tiny Chino Street cottages for sale that are listed between $600,000 and $700,000. “But the poorer people, they’ve been shoved into more complex-type housing. It’s hard to have so many families shoved into one place. Sometimes there are even a few families living in one house.”
Garcia, her laborer husband and their two children live in an apartment that rented for $800 when they first moved in, but now costs $1,500 a month. “My husband’s in construction. It’s been hard,” she said.
Jon Sonstelie, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara who lives in the hills above upper State Street, said he’s been surprised by the subtle transformation—hidden behind a facade of sleek State Street office buildings—of his extended neighborhood.
“It’s only a 20-minute walk for me to State Street—about a mile—but in many respects, it’s a world away in terms of what people do, the language they speak and how they live,” said the 35-year Santa Barbara resident who bought his first house here in 1979 for $120,000 and now lives in a modest two-story worth $1 million.
Salud Carbajal, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors and a resident of Santa Barbara’s Westside, said the South Coast’s natural beauty sometimes lulls us into complacency.
“We need not forget that in this wonderful place we call paradise, we still have serious problems. We have lots of poverty,” Carbajal said. “Once you peel the onion back, once you peel back that layer of beauty, we’re like every other jurisdiction. We have challenges from health, to education, to transportation, to housing.”
Carbajal said Santa Barbara’s housing problem has confounded public officials. “I’m all for expanding our housing stock,” he said. “But quite frankly, the reason people love Santa Barbara is that it’s not overly dense. You can kill the golden goose. You have to identify the tipping point. There are opportunities for growth, but we don’t want to reach the point where people say this is no longer the Santa Barbara they love.”
Before the housing bubble burst in 2007, the median price of a single-family home along the South Coast was $1.26 million, a price that excluded nearly all but the very wealthy from ownership.
Today, the median sales price is about $900,000—still out of reach for most middle-class families. Steep, 20-percent down payments, a tight loan market and a dearth of lower-cost housing make it hard for middle-income workers to buy. The price of South Coast housing remains twice as high as in western Ventura County and three and a half times higher than North County.
Meanwhile, 57 percent of all Santa Barbara County jobs are in South County, although less than half of the county’s population lives there.
The growing imbalance of jobs and housing was first officially noted by Santa Barbara officials during a broad planning review in 1974, when city officials decided to put the brakes on rampant residential growth and set an ideal population goal of 85,000 residents. The city still has a population of only 89,000 and didn’t grow at all during the past decade. A near-cap on commercial growth became city policy in the 1980s.
At the same time, during a prolonged drought, growth in the Goleta Valley was stymied when the county refused to issue developers new water permits. That moratorium was lifted once the county hooked into the State Water Project, guaranteeing a flow of Sierra Nevada water during dry years.
Combined, though, these growth restrictions pushed up the price of housing and exacerbated a shortage of affordable housing that still has not been addressed effectively. While the City of Santa Barbara says it keeps 12 percent of its housing stock for low-income residents, no government programs have assisted the middle class in getting a start in the housing market.
Even when new housing is built, it’s often priced out of the range of the bulk of the workforce because the supply is so small and the pent-up demand is so great. The effects have been predictable.
“For the last decade or two, there has been a trend toward worker relocation from the South County,” said the association of governments’ Imhof. “The result is an increasing number of commuters from the north and the south. And there’s a whole litany of horrors associated with this.”
In all, 11,400 commuters arrive in Santa Barbara each day from Ventura County. Another 8,700 North County residents commute to the South Coast for work and about 1,900 Los Angeles County commuters work here. In addition, about 8,200 San Luis Obispo County residents work in this county, although it’s not clear how many commute to the South Coast.
Imhof was himself one of those daily drivers just a few years ago. For three years, he and his wife, Elizabeth, a Santa Barbara City College professor, commuted 60 miles each morning from the bedroom community of Orcutt, just outside Santa Maria, before they sold their house at the height of the housing market. Then, they moved to Santa Barbara and rented for five years before they bought a home in a depressed 2011 housing market.
The census found that Santa Barbara County actually lost 10,000 residents in the 35 to 44 age group over the past decade, while every other adult age group grew. Analysts say this shows middle-aged workers could not afford to live in the South County and decided to buy homes and raise their children elsewhere. At the same time, the number of school-age children in the county dropped, despite a large influx of Latino immigrants with larger families.
Jennifer McGovern, president of the Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara County, a nonprofit organization that helps middle-income workers buy houses through interest-free loans for down payments, is a self-described L.A. refugee who attended UCSB. McGovern said she never would have been able to crack the South Coast housing market had she not married a homeowner 15 years ago.
“We’ve been hemorrhaging with the loss of the middle class for a couple of decades. We hear a lot of employees say, ‘Oh, yeah, we love the job, but there’s no way we can put down roots here,’” said McGovern. “That has profound effects—not being able to attract highly qualified educators, public safety officers and medical employees. Or they work here and commute. They make their money here and spend it where they live. They lack community involvement. They’re not going to stay after work and coach the Little League.”
Despite the relative affordability of North County, Santa Barbara County is the fifth most expensive small-metro housing market in the nation, McGovern said, citing building-industry figures. “We’re about the same as the Bay Area, but the problem is wages are so much lower here, so there’s an affordability gap. So many people in Santa Barbara are paying 40 to 50 percent of their wages for housing.”
Imhof and his staff at the Santa Barbara Association of Governments—in league with planners from every local jurisdiction—have toiled since 2010 to craft a plan that would begin to provide a better balance of housing in the jobs-rich South Coast and more jobs in the housing-rich North County. The partial fix, he said, is to make public transportation more available and more efficient, and perhaps “to directly intervene to create more housing in the south and more jobs in the north.”
City mayors and the county Board of Supervisors approved the new 30-year plan in concept last October. The plan, known as the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy, faces public hearings this summer. The 443-page document details what needs to be done for Santa Barbara County to comply with state and federal transportation laws and SB 375, a 2008 California law that requires coordinated land use and transportation policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while balancing jobs and housing in communities.
In general, the plan encourages more mass transit and more densely packed housing and commercial development along busy transportation corridors, potentially reducing the number of vehicle trips that growth is expected to produce in the future. It preserves farmland and open spaces, favoring new “infill” development on vacant parcels in cities. To do the job, it identifies $7.4 billion from voter-approved Measure A funds, plus state and federal funds aimed at reducing smog and fixing roads, that should be available over the next three decades.
A key element for South Coast compliance is production of thousands of high-density dwellings in downtown Santa Barbara, Goleta and in the unincorporated areas of East Goleta Valley and Isla Vista near UCSB. The North County focus is on construction of more business and industry, particularly near the Santa Maria airport, so thousands of residents can find jobs locally rather than commute to the South Coast or to San Luis Obispo County.
The plan calls for about 9,000 new dwellings to be built in Santa Barbara, 6,500 more in Goleta and thousands more in the East Goleta Valley and Isla Vista by 2040. Meanwhile, only about 9,500 households would be added in all of North County. But North County, which has had trouble luring big employers, would theoretically absorb 39,000 new jobs, while the South Coast job market would grow by just 5,500.
Should this occur, it would mark a reversal of the county’s recent history. During the past decade, Santa Maria added 5,447 new dwellings, 55 percent of the county total, while Goleta added 1,473, or 15 percent. Santa Barbara’s housing stock grew by just 744 units.
SBCAG, however, has no vote in land-use decisions. It simply recommends what local governments should do to accommodate a projected 60,200 new jobs, 41,500 new households and 96,000 new residents over the next three decades as the county grows to an expected population of 520,000.
Controversies are sure to follow as local governments begin to implement growth strategies for more high-density housing that are contrary to recent growth trends. But Imhoff said all the local jurisdictions now are working together in pursuit of a better balance of housing and jobs in the north and south.
In fact, the new regional plan is based on the county and cities’ own general plans for development and on existing regional plans, many of which have been altered in recent years to move toward balancing jobs and housing in each community.