In today’s political climate, it’s hard to know whether I’m a member of the so-called Fourth Estate or the Fifth Column. Either way, I have it on good authority from the current president that I qualify as a card-carrying “enemy of the people.” This came as a surprise because I grew up under the grandiose belief that my first name meant “victory of the people.” I was hoping my newfound enemy status might get me 86’d from this week’s Santa Barbara City Council showdown. Sadly, such was not to be.
At issue was a government-sponsored planning initiative that has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in prodding private developers to build rental housing. In most places, this might be cause for celebration. But this being Santa Barbara — where there’s no excess like success — it’s cause for alarm. Yes, the meeting did go on (and on) as feared — for about three and a half hours. Yes, some of the public comment veered from hysterical to histrionic. But mostly, the nutrient content was impressively high. More problematic were deliberations between the councilmembers themselves. By the time it got down to action, the council factions had hunkered down to such an extent that if five votes were required to go to the bathroom, the council’s collective trousers would have been soaking wet. At the end of a long night, the most the council could muster was a resolution announcing that someday they might take some action on the rental-housing incentive program that could change the current rules of the game. Although italics are added for ridicule, I exaggerate not at all. That’s the good news. Bad news would have been if they had passed something.
Part of this stems from the long-festering toxic feng shui between Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Gregg Hart. But most of the technical difficulties I can attribute to the fact that this year’s mayoral race is now officially heating up, and at least three members of the council, Cathy Murillo, Bendy White, and Frank Hotchkiss, have expressed varying degrees of interest; a fourth, Jason Dominguez, is suspected of also harboring ambitions despite protests to the contrary; and a fifth, Randy Rowse, is quietly doing the spade work needed to emerge as the come-from-nowhere, mushy-middle sleeper candidate capable of navigating a fractured field. That roster does not include former mayor Hal Conklin, who is hoping to wage a political comeback after a 22-year political hibernation. In the interest of full disclosure, I like all the candidates personally, but none pass my Goldilocks “just right” test. My problem with councilmember Hotchkiss — who, by the way, gets to the point faster, clearer, and better than anyone else — is not that he’s too conservative, which he, in fact, is. It’s that Hotchkiss is clearly compromised by Russian interests. In his recently published novel, Playing with Fire, Hotchkiss admits as much, writing about a middle-aged advertising executive who falls hard for a Russian femme fatale barely half his age. I’m still reading, but steam emanating from the pages is sufficient to accelerate climate change, which Frank may or may not believe in. The really big noise is between councilmembers Murillo and White, who represent feuding factions within the Democratic Party; Mayor Schneider and Councilmember Dominguez align with White while councilmember Hart is solidly in Murillo’s corner.
Ostensibly under discussion Tuesday night was the most-effective and worst-named City Hall program known as the Average Unit-Size Density (AUD) Incentive Program. The program was hatched three years ago — on a limited, experimental basis — to provide the necessary catnip to induce private developers to build rental housing, which they had steadfastly refused to do for 50 years. Planners hoped the program might generate 250 units over eight years. The package of inducements — greater housing densities allowed, fewer parking spaces required, and less bureaucratic oversight imposed — has proved to be a methamphetamine-Viagra cocktail for private developers. Already built or under construction are 150 units, already approved are 203 more, and pending are 430. Not everyone, however, thinks twitchy guys sporting bad teeth, bad skin, and four-hour erections are necessarily all that attractive. It certainly hasn’t helped that the first AUD project ever built — the 89-unit Marc located at State and La Cumbre — boasts $2,900 rents for one-bedroom, 646-square-foot apartments. Even by Santa Barbara standards, that’s shocking. Nor has it helped that another AUD — located on the 500 block of Garden Street — has been converted to vacation rentals. Or that the developers who got 33 AUD units proposed behind the Arlington Theatre now want to convert 10 to hotel rooms.
These are serious problems. They do not qualify, however, as an emergency. The real crisis is lack of affordable housing. What we don’t need right now is an emergency moratorium to shut down the AUD program, as councilmembers Dominguez and White have proposed. Instead, we need to whack that very successful program into shape.
If we want more affordable units, adopt new, inclusionary housing-condition laws stipulating that a percentage of all AUD units be rented to people making 80-120 percent average median income, the so-called “missing middle.” Right now, the program targets households earning way more than that — $93,000-$150,000. This seems like a simple solution. Likewise, if it doesn’t make sense to require only one parking space for three-bedroom units, that too can be fixed. It’s not rocket science. Don’t pull the plug. When it comes to plugging a serious loophole that allows AUD projects to convert into vacation rentals, maybe some legal rocket science will be required. City Attorney Ariel Calonne may not be a rocket scientist, but according to comments made Tuesday night, he reportedly is the next best thing, a super-genius.
Next time I show up at City Hall, do me a favor. Don’t let me in.