City Councilmember Grant House has never seen a glass that wasn’t at least half full. Given that House – the only incumbent in the race – is running for his political life, an incurable optimism no doubt helps. Clearly, voters are more rattled, worried, and angry than in years past, and House has been targeted for defeat by the big spending Texan, Randall Van Wolfswinkel. But rather than run from his record, House affirmatively celebrates it. When asked about a number of the council’s more controversial decisions, House is quick to reply, “I don’t know if I’d do anything differently.”
Even with the serious budget crisis confronting City hall – with more than $5 million in additional cuts looming next year – House said Santa Barbara’s problems remain the envy of most other cities. If the reserves aren’t what they should be – $900,000 instead of the $10 million called for – he said there’s still $16 million set aside for true emergencies.
“Let’s be real. Put it in perspective,” he said. “We’re a $250 million a year organization. All of our enterprise funds have balanced budgets. Our operating fund – of $106 million – has problems, and we’re dealing with them. We’ve already cut more than 50 positions. But we did so without any involuntary lay-offs.”
As for giving general employees a 2.5 percent pay-increase – plus an additional paid holiday – this past February in the midst of the recession, House expressed no regrets. The pay raise, he said, was far less than City Hall had budgeted. In exchange, the union – SEIU – had agreed to accept work furloughs, which, he stressed, saved the city millions.
House, a small business owner and renter, knows economic hard times first hand. He declared bankruptcy is 1984, got back on his feet, then got behind on his taxes in the early 1990s. House said he’s long since taken care of any outstanding debts owed the government, and shrugged off hit pieces exhuming his own financial troubles. “This reflects more poorly on them than it does on me,” he said. “It reflects poorly on their mothers.” House attacked the big money entering the fray and stated all the negative ads that money paid for were designed to suppress voter turnout. With a fundamental change in direction, House cautioned that future councils might retreat from City Hall’s historic commitment to affordable housing, creek restoration, and environmental sustainability.
As a councilmember, House is unfailingly polite, forever finding reasons to “appreciate” someone. Critics have seized upon this style to suggest House – who served on the planning commission before running for council – is more effusive than genuine. But supporters insist that House is temperamentally compelled to bring all parties to yes. For many slow-growthers, yes can be a four-letter word and they are quick to recall House’s unwavering support for Veronica Meadows, the controversial housing development proposed – and approved – along Las Positas Road. (The council approval, however, was successfully challenged in court.)
As an avid bike rider, House is best known for promoting alternative transit options: roundabouts, bulb-outs, bike lanes, and commuter rail. The closest thing to a “new urbanist” on the council, House has advocated for higher density development in the urban core and along transit lines. He bristles at the suggestion that Chapala Street has become “canyonized,” and is one of the few candidates in the race to oppose Measure B, which would further restrict maximum building heights. “We have to live within our resources, and that includes land,” he said. “Why squander it with low density development in the middle of town?”
That some of these developments have yielded “affordable housing” units available to households earning $120,000 a year or more, House noted that direct government subsidies were not available to teachers, nurses, and other middle income wage earners. To the extent any new height limits are in order, he said, they should emerge out of the Plan Santa Barbara planning process now underway, but that such limits should not be a pre-ordained outcome of that process, itself the subject of much dispute.
House said when walking precincts, the chief complaint he’s heard most consistently is about cars speeding through neighborhoods. “People have a concern, and we deal with it,” he said. “And then we get attacked for not listening. I don’t get it.”
House conceded not all solutions – like the round-about that was briefly installed at the entrance of Santa Barbara High School – were well thought-out. “Yea, we’ve stumbled,” he said. “But I’ve been trying to make sure the city is authentically listening to the neighborhoods and I resent the aspersions that get cast to the contrary when we’ve tried so hard.”