CRUNCHED NUMBERS: When I die and drag myself up to heaven, I expect it will look exactly like the Santa Barbara City College campus. And when God comes out to greet me, She — this is a Santa Barbara fantasy, after all — will radiate all the billowing wisdom, strength, and acceptance of Lori Gaskin, City College’s reigning Jefe del Mundo. The only problem with this vision is that thousands of students from all over the world are currently poaching my dream. And none of them are waiting to die to get here.
Giving urgency to such theological ruminations is that Gaskin and crew have their hands out, asking voters this November to approve something called Measure S, which will extract $288 million from the pockets of Santa Barbara property owners over the next 25 years to underwrite the cost of major construction projects befitting a campus that just won the “best community college in the nation” award. For the record, that’s a lot of construction and a lot of money. Unfortunately for Gaskin, this proposition has aroused the wrathful curiosity of Ernie Salomon, Santa Barbara’s bushy-browed troll under the proverbial bridge. By any measure, Ernie qualifies as a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, but Gaskin would be ill-advised to dismiss him as merely another occupant of Santa Barbara’s peanut gallery. Yes, Ernie experiences serious difficulty not telling people just how stupid they really are. Even so, he actually has a big heart, considerable street smarts, and gobs of energy. He also hosts his own public access TV show. Right now, Ernie is steamed about Measure S. His big question is this: “Why should Santa Barbara homeowners shell out $170 a year in additional property taxes to pay for gratuitous improvements when only 43 percent of the full-time students now attending City College actually come from the City College enrollment district?”
While Ernie and I often look at things through the same telescope, we tend to see them from the opposite ends. As a general rule, I figure if you’re lucky enough to own your own home in Santa Barbara, you’ve already won the lottery. So if you’re forced to pay what it costs to see about 10 movies a year to grease the gears of higher education, that qualifies as an acceptable shakedown in my book. But what’s no longer acceptable is City College’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the serious impacts their growing student body is having on the city’s notoriously challenged rental housing market. What’s equally unacceptable is the patiently polite, nothing-can-be-done fatalism of City Hall’s response to this problem.
In recent years, City College has emerged as ground zero for gazillions of students from Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Japan, and Brazil. Before that, they hailed from China and Ireland. Very cool and cosmopolitan. Little wonder, then, that at the sprawling apartment complex located right between City College’s East and West campuses, the new owners just installed a regulation-size flagpole with the flags of Japan, Brazil, Germany, and Sweden, not to mention those of the United States and California, flapping in the breeze. Campus officials estimate 6 percent of the student body comes from abroad. According to my math, that translates to about 1,800 bodies a school year. That number can go up even further because the campus cap on out-of-country students is 8 percent. Throw in another 4 percent to account for students hailing from outside the state, and it’s easy to understand how most classes are filled beyond capacity only seconds after enrollment starts. And that’s on top of the sizable number of students traditionally drawn to Santa Barbara from all over the state to take advantage of the school’s well-known back-door transfer privileges into UCSB, now one of the harder UC schools to get into.
I get it. City College is a great school. Who in their right mind wouldn’t go there? I also get why school officials like the out-of-state, out-of-country students. Money. In-state students taking a full load pay roughly $700 a semester in fees and tuition. By contrast, those from the outside pay $4,100. Many of these students come from wealthy families. Others are practically paid by their governments to attend, housing costs included. But here’s the deal: California’s community college system was invented to serve as the proverbial bootstraps by which those attempting to make it the hard way pulled themselves up. It was never envisioned to function as a fun-in-the-sun, educational-tourist-destination selfie that City College is now in danger of becoming.
Historically, City College has simply refused to address the housing needs of its students. To do so, its leaders explained, would interfere with its core mission of providing the aforementioned educational bootstraps. In other words, stop whining. But given that so many of these boots now bear the Gucci name brand, that rationale no longer applies. According to economic experts, Santa Barbara’s rents have increased at a record pace in the two years since the recovery. It now takes an income of $66,000 to “afford” — at least how the economists define it — the “average” rental. Much of this acceleration took place at exactly the same time as the spike in foreign enrollments occurred at City College. Coincidence or causality? You decide. Either way, you don’t need a PhD next to your last name to recognize the shifting demographics now afflicting the city’s lower Westside. What was once home to low-income Latino families packed in like sardines has now become “Isla Vista lite,” where City College students are now crammed in like anchovies. The demographics of the Mesa may differ, but the dynamics are the same.
Lori Gaskin, do something; City Hall, insist. Clearly, no easy or obvious solutions exist. But if you want to pick my pocket, Lori, I need to see serious effort. Otherwise, I’ll spend my money on movies, atrocious as they are. In the meantime, maybe we can all sing along to one of my favorite songs: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”