FORE! When it comes to golf, I don’t know a birdie from a bogey. It ain’t my game. So when I was first informed that the Santa Barbara Municipal Golf Course would be celebrating its 50th anniversary (for the entire year), I figured this was yet another case of overreaching by golf maniacs accustomed to being overindulged. I still can’t forget how golfers stormed City Hall during the last nasty drought-wielding nine irons and putters instead of pitchforks and torches-to protest strict water rationing measures they claimed threatened to fade the shade of their beloved greens. But I also remember hearing how the opening of the Muni Golf Course way back in 1958 was, in fact, a very big deal for Santa Barbara.
The opening of the city links signified the arrival of a genuine middle class in a place that, until then, was conspicuously stratified between the very rich and the very poor. Until then, if you golfed, you belonged to a private club. Or, as the News-Press wrote in 1958, Muni was for the “rank-and-file players who do not belong to posh clubs.” Santa Barbara’s burgeoning middle class was rooted in the growth of UCSB and the attendant military-industrial complex that drew grew up alongside it. These Siamese twins of enlightenment and paranoia drew scads of well-paid engineers, skilled in the dark arts of missile plume trajectories, to a host of companies whose only real customer was the Department of Defense. Back in those fearful days, people looked to the sky to see if it was falling. Santa Barbarans joined the effort to narrow our so-called missile gap with the Soviets with such ferocity that the News-Press editorial writers felt compelled to urge caution. That’s because teen-aged boys-always happy to blow things up-did their part by launching homemade projectiles from their backyards made with dangerous lengths of lead pipe. But then in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan-then a part-time Santa Barbara resident-outspent the Soviet Union into oblivion. And without an Evil Empire to scare us, the South Coast’s military industrial complex shriveled up, taking with it the basis for a middle class.
Naturally, this is what crossed my mind Tuesday afternoon as the Santa Barbara City Council wrestled with some exceedingly modest measures designed to secure a toehold for the middle class-and the upper-middle class-in the South Coast’s ever forbidding housing market. It used to be that affordable housing programs were designed to help the poor and the very poor. In Santa Barbara, the focus has shifted to the middle and upper-middle class. Once upon a time, teachers, nurses, and cops could afford to buy a home here. Those days are gone. Now doctors and lawyers can barely make it. Just imagine when the lawyers we need to sue our doctors for malpractice can no longer afford to live here. Is that the kind of community we want to become?
On the table were changes to city rules requiring that developers include a token number of affordable units in whatever housing they build. Four years ago, the council imposed these requirements on developments of 10 units or more. Anything smaller was not affected. Nor were condo conversions. Guess what? In the intervening four years, we have discovered that the vast majority of new housing units going up-95 percent of them in fact-are smaller than 10 units. And there’s been a whole lot of condo converting going on, too. In response, councilmembers Helene Schneider and Das Williams have led the charge to include condo conversions and projects with two or more units. Given the resistance they encountered, you’d have thought they were demanding rent control. They nearly got blown clear out of the water last August but managed to hang on. The new plan requires that 5 percent of all condo conversions and new units be affordable. And by “affordable,” we’re talking upper-middle-class income brackets. Developers can opt out by paying an in-lieu fee of $17,700 per affordable unit. Admittedly, that’s not much when you consider that the median price of a South Coast home is still just over $1 million. But if these rules had been in effect during the past two years, City Hall would have collected $3.5 million to underwrite housing subsidies for people who, until recently, would never have needed subsidizing.
Council deliberations can be windy affairs where councilmembers deploy such phrases as “folks,” “thinking outside the box,” and “providing another tool in the toolbox” with criminal abandon. This Tuesday’s phrase du jour was “silver bullet,” as in, the new rules would definitely not be “a silver bullet” for dealing with the high cost of housing, but they would provide “another tool in the toolbox.” Mayor Marty Blum got sidetracked in an aside, wondering why Denmark’s middle class is not disappearing, while Santa Barbara’s is. Councilmember Iya Falcone agonized at such length over the pros, the cons, and the “unintended consequences” of the measure that she seemed to be waging a one-woman filibuster with herself. Council conservative Dale Francisco, always tart and to the point, observed, “Denmark is not better off than we are,” and objected that the proposed ordinance language constituted “extortion.” He argued it was unfair to make builders and property owners underwrite every scheme to make housing more affordable. Schneider responded that people who converted rentals into condos-a ministerial transaction effectuated by City Hall-reaped such a huge financial windfall that taxing them a little bit was more than fair. This being City Hall, no action is ever truly final. Still, the council voted 6-1 to approve the changes in concept and send them back to committee for further refinement.
I don’t know that this qualifies as one small step for man or one giant step for mankind. But it is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, when I pass the Muni Golf Course, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for errant flying golf balls. Sure they’re a nuisance, but not nearly as scary as falling missiles or as hairy as Santa Barbara’s gravity-resistant housing prices. Oh, and happy 50th birthday.