Martin Traffanstedt, a homeless man known to frequent lower State Street in Downtown Santa Barbara, said he has lived on the city's streets off and on for nearly 50 years. He became homeless for the first time at age 14 and said Santa Barbara is his hometown. According to the January 2020 Point-in-Time Count, 76 percent of the county's homeless population were residents of the county at the time they became homeless, like Traffanstedt. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Despite Santa Barbara’s reputation as a beachy, high-class tourist destination, two Grand Jury reports released last week call out the city and county for neglecting its own residents — homelessness and affordable housing shortages plague the picturesque community.

The median price of a home in the City of Santa Barbara is $1.17 million, though over 60 percent of Santa Barbara residents are renters and the county as a whole is ranked third among all 58 California counties for having the most severe cost burden for renters. The vacancy rate for rentals in the city, if one can afford it, is slim to none. Despite this lack of rental housing, the city went more than 40 years without building any new rentals until 2013.

“The City Council needs a change in vision,” the housing report states about the council’s “silence” on low-cost housing developments that have failed and the city’s lack of affordable housing. “It has spent recent years guarding the interests of certain residents and neglecting the diversity of people that the city celebrates.”

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In the separate report on homelessness, the hardships on workers and families seeking stable, affordable housing in Santa Barbara are intertwined with those who live on Santa Barbara’s streets — 76 percent of whom were residents of Santa Barbara County at the time they became homeless, making the city’s and county’s lack of affordable housing an impetus of its homelessness crisis. 

According to the most recent January 2020 Santa Barbara County Point-in-Time Count, 1,223 homeless individuals were counted, including 674 people living in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Most imagine a stereotypical person suffering from untreated mental illness or addiction as the average homeless person, but in fact, they make up 32 percent of the county’s total homeless population.

Many of those living on the streets or in shelters who are not in the 32 percent were working residents who missed a paycheck or incurred unexpected costs or rent increases they couldn’t afford — nearly half of those surveyed said it was their first time experiencing homelessness. Eleven percent of those on the county’s streets are veterans, and 40 percent of all 1,897 individuals are female. The county also has one of the highest rates of homeless children in the state. Of all school-aged children across the county, one in eight is considered homeless as defined by 

The report supports Housing First, a national program adopted by the state that aims to house the most vulnerable homeless people first and remove any barriers to shelter like sobriety requirements. But in a city where building enough housing for average working families is akin to fighting an uphill battle, building housing for people who are homeless can seem impossible.

The report highlights the strong opposition the community holds against homeless housing and architectural change in neighborhoods, despite the urgent need for more types of housing. It referenced two proposed affordable housing projects for downtown: the tiny homes project for the formerly homeless that was nixed after community opposition, and the workforce housing site that is being shot down by neighbors.

“Without the backing of city leaders, affordable housing is fiercely resisted,” the housing report states about the city’s lack of change and direction around affordable housing. The Grand Jury report on homelessness pointed to city and county leaders to educate and influence the public, too.

“Strong leadership from local government can go a long way toward alleviating the stigma of homelessness,” the report says. “Positive messaging on a consistent basis from local leaders and targeted neighborhood meetings that provide information and solicit input on specific development proposals could lay the groundwork.”

The housing report suggests that the City Council should:

  • Develop and implement a plan for the creation of low- and middle-income housing units,
  • obtain or create continuous reliable sources of funding to facilitate the development of low- and middle-income housing units,
  • identify and obtain publicly owned properties that would be appropriate for low- and middle-income housing units,
  • require inclusionary or low- and middle-income housing units when approving housing projects with 10 units or more,
  • request the Community Development Department to revise the zoning ordinance to allow for cost-effective alternative building types, such as modular housing, small homes, and 3-D-printed housing, and
  • implement a plan to lower costs for development of inclusionary or low- or middle-income housing units through the use of subsidies, lower fees, or incentives. 

The homelessness report suggests that:

  • The County Board of Supervisors direct the County Community Services Department to publish an annual report of homeless-related expenditures and outcomes,
  • each of the eight city councils in the county publish an annual report of its homeless-related expenditures and outcomes,
  • all of the city councils and the County Board of Supervisors devise mechanisms for providing ways to build permanent supportive housing for the area’s most vulnerable homeless populations and identify funding mechanisms, including, but not limited to, bond issues, dedicated taxing, a designated budgetary line item, and strong philanthropic partnerships, for housing the homeless,
  • all city councils and the Board of Supervisors designate and facilitate building of housing for people who are homeless on sites within their jurisdictions,
  • all city councils and the Board of Supervisors be more proactive in informing the public of the needs of homeless people for housing and services and how it can appropriately fit into neighborhoods by holding forums and conducting tours of existing facilities to educate the residents whose neighborhoods are proposed for the development of projects for the homeless,
  • all city councils and the Board of Supervisors undertake feasibility studies and develop plans for using alternate types of cost-effective forms of housing like high-performance tension fabric structures, tiny houses, and modular housing,
  • the Board of Supervisors provide the Behavioral Wellness Department with additional continuous funding to ensure the needed staff-to-client ratios in the county supportive-housing facilities, and
  • all city councils and the Board of Supervisors contact major health-care insurers in their jurisdictions and encourage them to seek partnerships to support the construction of housing for the county’s chronically homeless.

The Board of Supervisors and the county’s eight cities have 90 days to answer the suggestions in the housing and homelessness reports — released on June 24 and 25, respectively.

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