Housing costs in Santa Barbara are high. They are so high it’s become cliché simply to say, “Housing costs are high.” As the first speaker at the recent city forum on the cost of living, I decided to focus squarely on housing rather than the living wage, though the forum sponsor was the city’s Living Wage Advisory Committee.
We rarely give any explanation of how high that housing cost is. Instead of rolling our collective eyes and just talking about how cool it is to live here, we need to truly understand the problem to begin to address it. For many who have lived here 20 or more years, it’s hard to understand. They acquired their houses back before the run-up in prices and don’t face the same issues as the majority of people trying to make a go of it.
So how bad is it? To find out, I’ve gone to a “cost of living” calculator. This system takes into account all of the factors that determine the cost of living in a place, everything from the price of energy to food to entertainment. Generally, these systems have 90-100 data points, which are gathered in cities across the country, then compared to one another. In each category, a median price is found, and that price is set at 100 points. All other prices are then assigned a point value based on that median price — and a score is determined.
To find out how we fared, I chose a variety of cities around the Western U.S. with some similarity to us:
Each of these cities has a large university. Each has a variety of housing options. Each has enough similarities to make a comparison meaningful.
Tucson’s overall score is 95, meaning its overall cost of living is slightly below the average. And its housing score is 83 — well below the national average. Bellingham’s overall score is 130, with a housing score of 177, meaning it’s 30 percent more expensive to live in Bellingham than the average around the country. That average is driven by housing costs, which are 77 percent higher than the national average.
And Santa Barbara? The overall score is 254, very high. But in the breakdown, every single data point is around 100. Our energy costs are slightly below the national average. Groceries are slightly above. In every category, we are pretty darned average — except one. Housing.
At 579, we have one of the highest housing-cost scores in the country. It is over five-and-a-half times more expensive to get housing in Santa Barbara than it is on average across the U.S.
Housing issues affect us in a number of ways. Businesses can’t recruit new employees into the community. People who are here eventually leave to buy a house, regardless of how much they love this place. People’s buying power decreases, meaning they spend less in our stores (and generally look for better bargains online). The list of impacts goes on and on.
It is for this very reason that the Chamber of Commerce has been standing arm in arm with housing advocates across the South Coast, seeking ways to increase our housing stock. For those who are primarily concerned about preserving Santa Barbara as it is, I hear and respect you, but preservation must be done in conjunction with meeting our basic housing needs. Driving density where it is appropriate to accommodate those who are already involved and working in our community is not just a nice thing to do; it is something we must do for the long-term economic health of the South Coast.
As you look at the city’s upcoming November election, please keep this in mind: Which candidates are talking about dealing with the cost of living by simply looking to increase mandated wages more and more? And which are calling for dealing with the root of the problem: housing prices?