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KCBX's Out of Reach is an in-depth series on Santa Barbara County's housing crisis, reported by Beth Thornton. Senior editor Marisa Waddell and editor Benjamin Purper contributed to this project. This special report is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.

Out of Reach: Santa Barbara's historically working-class neighborhoods are disappearing

Santa Barbara City Hall
Beth Thornton
The City of Santa Barbara is in a housing crisis. High housing costs are pushing working class residents out of Santa Barbara.

The City of Santa Barbara is ground zero for the county’s housing challenges, and the city’s third district is a good example.

Oscar Gutierrez is the Santa Barbara City Councilmember representing the third district. He was born and raised in Santa Barbara and grew up on the Westside, in the neighborhood he now represents.

“When I was growing up, it was a very diverse and eclectic community where the lower-income, working-class people lived — same with the Eastside, as well,” he said.

But he said now, many of the properties rented by working-class families are being sold, and often used as vacation rentals or second homes. He said his constituents are being priced out of the neighborhood where many families have lived for generations.

“According to the recent census, there’s been a large amount of Latinos leaving Santa Barbara and moving to other cities, mainly because of the cost of living going up — and you can see that in the neighborhoods now,” Gutierrez said.

He said when neighborhoods are disrupted like this, it affects people’s lives and causes problems for the workforce.

Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez at a park on the Westside.
City Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez represents District 3, Santa Barbara's Westside.

“During the 2017 fires and the 2018 debris flow the freeway was cut off — it was shut down for almost two weeks — and a large portion of our workforce, and even first responders, weren’t able to get to us because they lived out of town,” he said.

Gutierrez said residents in his district are frustrated, and they let him know.

“A lot of them are very upset about the fact that a lot of their friends and family have to leave,” he said.

The Santa Barbara City Council recently created an ad-hoc Housing Crisis Committee to explore ways to tackle the problems. Gutierrez said the committee is researching ideas such as better enforcement of vacation rentals, incentives for developers and landlords, voucher programs, and rent control.

There are varying opinions on how to move forward, he said, and the topic of rent control — which limits the amount landlords can charge for rent — is hotly debated.

One vocal opponent of rent control is UCSB economics professor Peter Rupert. He said there are better options for Santa Barbara, like more rental assistance.

“I’m an advocate of some kind of housing vouchers. To me, that’s really the only way,” he said.

Rupert said rent control leads to, among other things, less building, fewer properties for rent — when they’re already in short supply — and less incentive for maintenance and upkeep.

“I have talked about the perils of rent control many times, which I think hurts the problem and doesn’t help the problem,” he said.

Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy or CAUSE, is a nonprofit organization that advocates for tenants' rights and rent control. Lucas Zucker is the policy and communications director. He said Oxnard just passed a rent control policy with support from CAUSE, and they are working on a proposal for Santa Barbara, too.

Whatever the city decides at a later date will not reverse what’s currently happening on the Eastside and Westside of Santa Barbara. Zucker called it textbook gentrification.

“Gentrification is when a community is changing in its socio-economic makeup, and working-class families — often folks of color— are being pushed out of an area, typically by high housing costs and a more affluent population is moving in,” he said.

Map of Santa Barbara. High housing costs are impacting working class neighborhoods on Eastside and Westside.
Screenshot Zillow.com
Map of Santa Barbara. High housing costs are impacting working class neighborhoods on Eastside and Westside.

Being forced to move is hard on low-income families, Zucker said, especially when there are no affordable options nearby. He said moving out of town can result in job loss for people without transportation and cause school disruptions for children.

Zucker said in 2019, Santa Barbara passed a "just cause" eviction ordinance to provide relocation assistance to residents who do get evicted by no fault of their own — meaning they didn’t violate their rental agreement. One example of a no-fault eviction is when a property owner does major renovations.

“A new corporation will come in and buy up a whole building and say, “We need to renovate this whole place and we're going to evict everyone here.” The City of Santa Barbara says, “Okay, you can do that, but you need to provide three months relocation assistance,” he said.

He said the ordinance applies to residents in the city of Santa Barbara only and that in other parts of the county just one month of relocation assistance is required – which he says makes it tough in this market.

Zucker said building more affordable housing and making policy changes is necessary for Santa Barbara County to meet housing needs, but that takes time. He said immediate support is required for those at risk of eviction.

“Housing advocates talk about the three Ps: production, preservation, and protection. You’ve got to produce new affordable housing, you’ve got to preserve the affordable housing you already have, and you have to protect tenants because, in the meantime, it takes a long time to produce,” he said.

Councilmember Gutierrez said the high cost of housing is changing Santa Barbara’s demographics, affecting not just people of color and the working class but also young people. He said it’s time for younger, more diverse communities here to get involved.

“The younger generations living here need to be more active. They need to be louder and demand more change,” he said.

Out of Reach is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation. Senior editor Marisa Waddell and editor Benjamin Purper edited this story.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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