There are currently 887 homeless people on Santa Barbara’s streets on any given night, and the most obvious opportunity for intervention is to build more affordable housing. This was the sentiment of Lucrezia DeLeon, an architectural designer with a background in socioequity-focused architecture. She spoke on the “Housing Solutions for a Vibrant Santa Barbara” panel Wednesday, put on by the World Business Academy at the Belmond El Encanto hotel. Of the four panelists who spoke, DeLeon’s solutions were the most viable and seemingly well-matched for the Santa Barbara area.
Just before DeLeon spoke, panelist City Councilmember Jason Dominguez had told the audience to “cross off the word ‘solutions’ and replace it with ‘management’” in reference to the name of the event. In a sort-of dig at Dominguez, DeLeon told the audience: “I want you to know I believe there are solutions. … Get involved and be educated and know that your voice matters.”
In addition to her emphasis on the city’s homeless population, DeLeon focused on the “missing middle” population — seniors and millenials. She said that the average Santa Barbara renter spends 70 percent of their income on rent when it isn’t recommended for renters to spend more than 30 percent. “We need to debunk the stigma through data,” she said. She mentioned the current waitlist for senior housing is eight years, and that working-class and retired people need solutions just as much as people who are homeless.
Santa Barbara still needs to permit nearly 2,000 more units by 2023, according to a state mandate by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. She stressed that although the city’s need to build more rentals is pressing, it is important to build quality, sustainable units or else they will need to be “rehabbed” in the next decade. She favored the idea of mixed-use buildings to fill the gap, where businesses would occupy the bottom level and residential units would occupy the top.
Panelist Matt Turner, cofounder of Hustlers for Humanity, shared DeLeon’s idea for mixed-use buildings. He was focused solely on the millennial population, though, and said he was speaking on behalf of millennials when he described what the generation wants in housing. “State Street is a catalyst for bringing millennial presence downtown,” he said. He took inspiration from the Little Italy neighborhood in San Diego and said that millennials would be willing to forgo cars and space if “the right developer” would build residential units on top of businesses on lower State Street. He was speaking in anticipation of Amazon opening on State Street and the hundreds of millennial tech employees who will work there.
Turner did not address, however, the extremely high rents of lower State and the unlikelihood that the rental prices would be affordable for the age group. He also did not address that many millennials are in their late thirties, starting families, and less likely to be interested in forgoing space and vehicles. Dominguez told Turner he was “millennial-splaining” and that the housing he was describing would likely be more attractive to seniors.
Rinaldo Brutoco, the moderator of the event, and founder and president of the World Business Academy, alluded to a height-limit exemption granted last month by the city to a mental-health mixed-use building on Anapamu Street. The building was permitted to build up to five stories, and Brutoco said building five-story rentals on top of vacant State Street storefronts would support Turner’s plan for millennial housing. However, Brutoco and Turner failed to address that there needs to be a clearly demonstrated need for such a building and a benefit to the community in order to approve a structure taller than the city’s height limit.
The fourth panelist to speak was the CEO of the city Housing Authority, Rob Fredericks, whose solution was to consider building housing in the commuter lot on the corner Castillo and Carrillo Streets, where a controversy last year erupted after his nonprofit proposed to build 40 “tiny homes” there to house people who are homeless. He said this time, if done more slowly and carefully, building housing on the lot could be successful and would be more cost-effective than Turner’s idea to build on top of lower State.
The discussion lasted several hours, and was sponsored by Belmond-El Encanto Hotel of Santa Barbara, Solutions News, and Hustlers for Humanity.