FOWLING ONE’S NEST: That loud beating sound you’re hearing is that of all the chickens coming home to roost. Normally such infestations of flying fowl are handled by the proverbial foxes hired to guard the proverbial henhouses. But in Fresno County, where push comes to shove with sudden violence, they’ve found another solution. There this week, a man broke into a Foster Farms facility armed with a golf club. By the time he finished impersonating Arnold Palmer, 920 birds lay dead. The assailant remains at large, and police are looking for a middle-aged white male wearing golf shoes and sporting bloody feathers in his hair.
In Santa Barbara, the roosting chickens are manifesting differently. This week, for example, was the drop-dead date for anyone to sue Caltrans over its behemoth plans to widen highway 101 and install an HOV lane. At the last minute, someone did. Whether this goes down in the history books as an act of courage, folly, or crass pandering, I don’t really care. It will slow the project down. When you’re talking about a half-a-billion-dollar construction project, then maybe a second look isn’t the worst thing in the world. When all the construction dust settles — many years from now — the traffic congestion then will be pretty much what it is now, only more so. On my planet, half a billion qualifies as real dough. If we’re going to spend like drunken sailors, shouldn’t we at least get a decent buzz to show for it?
I get that there’s a serious problem on the freeway. But we are told we need this fix to accommodate the drivers from Ventura and points south — all 13,000 of them — who make the trek north every day to work in Santa Barbara and Goleta. It’s true they experience gridlock hell, and I sympathize. But I’m also struck that so many of the better-paying jobs on the South Coast happen to be taken by people who live elsewhere. Hey man, I’ve read the reports. Santa Barbara’s actual inhabitants — fed by a steady flow of out-of-town students and immigrants — toil in what’s been dubbed “The T-Shirt economy” and are forced to cobble together a handful of minimum-wage gigs so they can cram together in broom-closet apartments on the lower Westside.
All this makes me really curious why no one with political ambition in Santa Barbara is even whispering about increasing the minimum wage. It’s become the hot and trendy thing to do all over the state. Every city with a Greyhound bus depot is looking into it. Strangely, we’re not. Why is it you can never find a good opportunist when you need one the most? Economists will tell you this is a bad idea, that it will chase jobs away. Maybe so. But then, they’ve said that every single time the minimum wage has been raised, and yet we have prospered. I do wonder why these same economists are so strangely silent when it comes to spending half a billion to build a wider freeway that won’t fix congestion so that out-of-towners can more conveniently drive to Santa Barbara and take the best-paying jobs.
This, of course, is nothing new. But for whatever reason, it’s achieving critical mass. Maybe it’s because of Elliot Rodger, Isla Vista’s latest sicko-psycho, one-man crime spree. Or maybe it’s because the vacancy rate has gotten so small that only UCSB’s Department of Nanotechnology has the tools to measure it anymore. As UCSB is forced to confront its own long legacy of neglect in Isla Vista, campus officials there increasingly complain how their efforts to ameliorate matters have been steadily undermined by the onslaught of new arrivals to I.V. from City College. And they have a point. Since 1989 — when UCSB launched its first Long Range Development Plan — the number of UCSB students has grown roughly by 1,500. In that same time, the number of City College students has grown by nearly 10,000. More than half of City College’s enrollment comes from outside the school district. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a great school. But it takes a serious toll on our nano-housing supply. Toss in the exponential growth of schools teaching English to wealthy foreign students, plus the vast sums being made by Empty Nesters converting what could have been rentable space into vacation rentals, and Houston, we have a nightmare.
Into this maelstrom walks City College’s CEO Lori Gaskin, asking voters to shell out $288 million for her campus in this November’s election. Bad timing. None of that money has been earmarked for housing. Unlike UCSB, City College is neither charged nor funded to address its housing needs. Traditionally, it hasn’t bothered to even try. It should be noted, however, the City College Foundation made a legitimately valiant effort this year to buy the biggest apartment complex on Cliff Drive, only to be outbid by $3 million. It was a nice gesture and good start. But Gaskin and her bond measure will need to do more if they hope to convince voters to support her Measure S. The local Democratic Party machine — as knee-jerk a pro-education, just-throw-money-at-it bunch of tax-and-spenders as you can hope to find — declined to endorse the bond measure. It was the housing issue that tied them up. Gaskin can say Measure S is nonpartisan, but she doesn’t have the Dem machine going into what promises to be an abysmally low-turnout election; she has serious problems. Ideally, Gaskin should scrap Measure S, start over, and come back next year. But she can’t. That’s because the City of Santa Barbara wants to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot then to help raise the half-a-billion bucks needed to pay for its own deferred infrastructure needs. And the school district has bond plans of its own. They all have to take turns; you can only ask voters for money so many times in one election.
Like I say, the chickens are coming. And coincidentally, they all weigh half a billion bucks.