NO HOME LIKE NO PLACE: While sitting in Santa Barbara’s City Council chambers last week, a song from the distant past crowbarred its way into my brain: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Naturally, the issue then before the council was housing. Boy Wunderkind developer and spokesperson for millennial hipster creatives Neil Dipaola had the mic and was throwing down with a vengeance. On the table was a policy aphrodisiac designed to stimulate private developers to build rental units by bribing them with massive density increases and big breaks on parking requirements.
The program, still in its gestation period, appears to be succeeding far beyond expectation. Some councilmembers worried the excess of success might generate collateral parking problems on city streets. Not normally so outspoken, Dipaola dissed such parking concerns as “Old White People Problems.” He equated them to having so much space in one’s backyard that it was impossible to figure out where exactly to build one’s new swimming pool. Those harboring such fears, he concluded, were the same kinds of people who fret about putting the wrong octane of gas into their BMW. It was great theater, but for Dipaolo — hitherto regarded around City Hall as a suave and savvy visionary type — it was probably bad politics. A whole lot of air got sucked through a lot of city councilmembers’ teeth.
Dipaolo is currently trying to build about three times as many rental units in the Funk Zone as city planners say can be accommodated under existing zoning. It’s going to be a dog fight. As a cudgel, Dipaola is wielding a state law he says allows far more density than city rules and regulations tolerate. And the state law, he claims, trumps such local, parochial concerns. As a general rule, City Hall hates getting muscled. And especially so by the State of California.
The poster children for state pre-emption of local land use authority are the 40 two-bedroom “mobile homes” now generating a serious hue and cry as they sprout up over the freeway by Punta Gorda Street in downtown Santa Barbara. Given the sustained intensity of outrage, one would think Martians had landed. And maybe they did. The development is exactly the sort of in-your-face project designed to give affordable housing a bad name. Worse yet, they’re hardly affordable unless you happen to think $2,000 a month for a 550-square-foot roost perched only 30-feet from the noise and exhaust of Highway 101 qualifies as “affordable.” Who knows, maybe in Santa Barbara it does.
In the past few months, City Hall has been taking a beating. How could such a monstrosity be approved? The fact is City Hall had absolutely no say over this project. It was approved by the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which asserted exclusive authority to permit and regulate anything developed on the 1.4-acre triangle of land from whence the 40 units are now popping.
Here’s the deal. The land in question has been the site for a mobile home park dating back to the 1950s. The State of California regulates mobile home parks; cities cannot. Way back the park was known as the Deluxe Mobile Home Park, and it was owned by an entity calling itself the Deluxe Syndicate. The word deluxe, by the way, stems from a Latin word that means excessive. Only with that meaning has there ever been anything “deluxe” about the place.
About 10 years ago, the place was a makeshift dump where beat-to-crap and ass-bedraggled “mobile home” coaches shared space with piles of abandoned construction material, weeds, rats, and graffiti-festooned walls. After a long and protracted battle, City Hall forced the owners to clear the site of all but two coaches and clean up the mess. Deluxe then came in with new-and-improved plans that included two-story mobile homes. For more than three years, city planners and Deluxe fought tooth and nail over the plans. In 2010, Deluxe figured out it could avoid the hassle by applying directly to Housing and Community Development, a state agency. In no time, it got the permits it needed. Shortly thereafter, Deluxe’s owners sold out to Ed Clark and a new investment group, the Green Valley Corporation.
Whatever one thinks of the current development, there’s nothing remotely Green or Valley-like about it. Nor are any of the homes remotely “mobile.” Because the project occupies a floodplain, the rental units must be installed on top of three-foot-high concrete slabs. Nothing could be more permanent; nothing could possibly be less mobile. In addition, almost all the new units have pitched roofs; many have shingles. None of these features are to be found on what’s commonly understood to be a mobile home. They’re not within the same area code.
Here’s the other deal: Under state law, the definition of mobile home has morphed many times since the State of California first began regulating car camping parks back in 1920. Today, that definition has expanded to include prefabricated houses. As a practical matter, occupants of the Deluxe park could — at least theoretically — have moved their coaches to other locations. But at Green Valley, it’s not even a remotely theoretical possibility.
Still, state law is state law. For about four years, City Hall squawked to the Department of Housing and Community Development about various elements of the prior owners’ plans to redevelop the park. Among the concerns registered were the two-story structures proposed. There was a blizzard of an avalanche of a tsunami when it came to legal documents flying between Sacramento and Santa Barbara. But by late 2011, one thing was clear. City Hall had absolutely no legal standing to say boo about any plans proposed for that park. Zero. The state had complete and total say and asserted this authority, as they say, most robustly. The clincher was a 2005 ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal involving a two-story mobile home park proposed in the City of Santa Cruz. Local authorities objected to the double-decker feature, but the court ruled soundly and roundly that the city had no jurisdiction; only the state did. Case closed.
I belabor this history because much has been made about City Hall’s reportedly supine response to the Punta Gorda Street developments. Yes, a fit could have been pitched. Old arguments could have been trotted out. But four years ago they’d been whupped. Last week, Mayor Helene Schneider alerted the local media that she’d sent letters to Assemblymember Das Williams and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson asking them to seek a legislative fix to the problem. Perhaps, she suggested, the definition of a mobile home should be tweaked to exclude structures that can never be moved. Or maybe some opportunity for local review should be carved into law. When Schneider’s letter arrived at the offices of Williams and Jackson, there had been no advance notice. That was a problem. City Hall staff was supposed to have initiated such contact and made such preparations. That’s the way it’s done. For reasons not clear, that didn’t happen.
In the meantime, the issue remains, and Williams and Jackson issued press statements indicating they are working on it. Maybe something can actually be done. We’ll see. Other mobile home parks within city limits might be vulnerable to the same sort of shenanigans. When asked which ones they might be, Mayor Schneider paused and thought for a few seconds. Then she said, “The one on the top of De la Vina Street.” That’s the one with the gleaming Airstream trailers out front. It also happens to be owned by Neil Dipaola, the millennial throw-down artist. For the record, there’s absolutely no reason to believe Dipaola has any such plans for his De la Vina Street property. But the whole deal helps explain why City Hall will fight any attempt by Dipaola to use state law to build more rental units than city rules dictate. It also explains why that damn song is stuck in my head.