La Casa de la Raza faces perhaps the most challenging time in its history. As an organization, La Casa is probably somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million in debt. The existing site, after soil remediation efforts, is perhaps worth only a few hundred thousand dollars more than its current debt. What was once a vibrant and essential part of the community is now an organization that is continually in the papers for bankruptcy and missed tax payments.
Having participated in the founding of La Casa in the late 1960s, it was not always this way. At one time, La Casa’s debt was in the thousands of dollars and cost only $150 per month. Now, payment on La Casa’s debt would be $10,000 per month or more. Because debt payment and other expenses were initially small, almost all money raised could go for programs and building maintenance and improvements. Hundreds of people from the community participated in the operation and upkeep of La Casa, and thousands of people used the building every month.
Though many won’t like me for saying so, the community has no one to blame but ourselves for the condition in which La Casa finds itself today. Originally, La Casa was supposed to be run by its membership, and each year there was a membership meeting to elect the Board of Directors. For many years now, no membership meeting has been called. There is a distance between the current, so-called Board of Directors and the community they are intended to serve.
Services at La Casa have become professionalized. Rather than community members directly running and maintaining La Casa, a professional structure has become institutionalized that is separate from the community. As a result, hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt has been incurred that there is no apparent way to pay off.
At one time, many city leaders — including from city administration and the parks and recreation commission — actively worked with La Casa. These sorts of close relationships between La Casa and the larger community no longer exist. La Casa administration and its board have largely become an autonomous group who are accountable to no one but themselves.
I believe that La Casa can become viable and an important part of Santa Barbara again, but it will take new leadership and renewed dedication. La Casa de la Raza — the “House of the People” — can again serve thousands of people every month, but it will be necessary to adopt policies and employ personnel that will remove La Casa from debt and reconnect it to the community. It’s time for a new Board of Directors and new staff at La Casa.
In the coming weeks and months, there will be new court actions to determine what the fate of La Casa’s building and site will be. I can only express the wish that La Casa de la Raza will return to its origins and that an empowered membership will elect a new Board of Directors to reform La Casa according to its original mission and purpose. The place of La Casa is too important in our community not to make every effort to preserve, defend, and promote this integral part of Santa Barbara.Leo Martinez was a founder of La Casa de la Raza and is a past member of the Santa Barbara City Council.