Retail and office space hemorrhage face the next Santa Barbara mayor, among other issues. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

This is the most important city election ever.

All the usual Santa Barbara issues that cause jaws to wag, tensions to rise, and brief storms to constellate at City Hall have been utterly eclipsed by gigantic concerns, some moving relentlessly across the globe, some intensely local and underway well before the pandemic.

I’m not sure, as residents, that we’re all aware of them.

Our city leadership isn’t doing much on them.

Those stepping up to run for mayor, here’s what you face, unvarnished:

(1) Retail hemorrhage, with potential office-space hemorrhage from people working remotely. We’d been undergoing a seismic shift in our local economy, with downtown retail imploding prior to the pandemic. There’s opportunity here, as there always is in a crisis. We could look at potential conversions to housing. There is a bill moving through the State Legislature to do that, for retail that’s died, to allow cities to quickly rezone to allow housing to be built.

Sharon Byrne

(2) Parklets could be here to stay. A bill to retain those is moving through the Legislature, proposed by Senator Scott Wiener (D-11th Distr, San Francisco/Marin).

(3) You may have just gotten the sense you really ought to be watching the state more closely. Senator Wiener seems very determined, along with Senator Toni Atkins (D-Dist. 39, San Diego), to (a) get new housing built by (b) removing local controls. SB1120 almost passed last year — a technicality in procedure killed it at 2 a.m. The bill would have allowed a granny flat on almost any single-family lot. What did the City of Santa Barbara do regarding this legislation? Zero, unlike Montecito and Ventura.

(4) Climate change: Montecito has moved to climate defensiveness, due to recent experiences. Santa Barbara is looking at sea rise, but why aren’t there solar panels on every rooftop? It’s the era of PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdowns) every time the wind picks up. We could be generating local solar power and using it when the grid shuts down or in emergencies. The pandemic dropped emissions and traffic from telecommuting. Some jobs can’t be done remotely, but those who could work from home saw three weeks to the gallon in gas mileage. Wear and tear on highways dropped, and skies cleared. Our insane housing policies have forced people to go further to buy a home, driving up commutes (emissions) and homelessness. Why not reward companies that telework?

(5) Homelessness explosion and encampment fires: There is now a countywide fire chiefs’ task force on fire concerns. We’re doing more homeless outreach across this county than ever attempted before. The City of Santa Barbara has not been in the fire chiefs’ task force meetings, though we’ve had multiple encampments fires and lately some arson fires near the 101. Wildfire bills are coming through the state that municipalities have to incorporate into their codes. Our city leadership is not participating in the advocacy process to shape legislation before it passes.

(6) The pending wave of evictions coming from those who have not been able to pay rent, oddly juxtaposed with expensive-rent AUD (average unit-size density) housing coming online. This is pre-pandemic Santa Barbara Dreamland colliding with pandemic reality. AUD developers struggle to get through the planning process, finding the project they conceived years ago now has huge cost overruns, and thus affordability is not remotely possible.

Note to the Democratic party here: Building more housing does not automatically equal more affordable housing. It will be trickle-down, at best, in that older, more decrepit units could possibly drop in price to attract tenants who can’t afford sparkling new AUD-unit rents.

We passed moratoriums to protect people from eviction, but is anyone looking at what happens post-moratorium? More importantly, what happens to our residents when moratoriums expire?

I’ve met evicted 30-40-year-olds camping on the beach, newly homeless. Is the city hoping that by hiring City Net, a stellar homeless outreach agency, they’ll just magically handle it? With the paltry $380,000 contract the city signed with them? Montecito, with 1/9th of Santa Barbara’s population, and a tiny percentage of its homeless population, raised $100,000 from the community to do outreach and find housing solutions. Montecitans are actively involved. Having fire departments engage regarding homelessness to reduce fires is huge and new.

Why does Santa Barbara’s leadership not encourage the community to participate in solving the issue of homelessness on a daily basis? There is no 1-800-there’s-a-homeless-person-please-come-get-them number to call. No one agency can solve it. It’s on us, all of us. Community engagement and investment can do amazing things. So why do Santa Barbarans and our city leadership continue to act like the police should deal with it? Didn’t we march for Black Lives Matter and advocate defunding police? How is this not crazy mixed messaging?

“Hi police. It’s your city calling. We want an oversight committee, in case you mess up. We also want others to do some of what we’ve thrown at you to deal with, well, for decades now … but um, hey, can you deal with the homeless? It’s getting out of hand … Oh, and maybe deal with that angry, mask-defiant set, too.”

If the police aren’t confused, and disheartened, it’s a miracle. Did anyone in city leadership, other than retiring Chief Lori Luhnow, step up to work with the county’s Behavioral Wellness division to get needed services to people experiencing mental illness and homelessness, and better handle mental-health crises calls?

These are the real issues our city faces. And there are others.

I am not running for mayor.

I’m just a concerned citizen who sees the way our city was changing pre-pandemic, with natural disasters and retail implosion. COVID-19 hyper-shifted us into a landscape few of us could even conceive. The usual “Santa Barbara-(ec)centric” candidates that kiss rings in the Democratic Central Committee or Republican Party are Just. Not. Good. Enough. The job of mayor now requires someone of much higher caliber than what party machinery traditionally puts before us.

We need someone with disaster recovery skills, able to navigate all levels of government, and who can actually do economic development.

Our heavily tourism-based economy is very vulnerable to downturns, disasters, and pandemics. While our tourism bureau is amazing, we need more than just this as the base of our economy.

Consider this your clarion call that we as city electors certainly need to set the bar far higher than it ever has been before and demand better.


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