Can Anyone Find a House for Sale in Santa Barbara?

The State Demands We Build 8,001 More Housing Units

Credit: Yuxuan Wang/Unsplash

HUNTING HOUSING:  On the way home the other night, I ran into a neighbor jogging down Valerio Street. Naturally, we had to do the COVID catchup. You vaccinated? he asked. You doing okay? I asked him back. All the usual. He and his wife, it turns out, had been hoping to break into the housing market, which it turns out is like trying to windsurf a tornado. They recently put in a bid for an attractive fixer-upper on the Westside — no, not the Alta Baja Mesa or any of those other gloppy real estate euphemisms — in need of some serious infrastructure work. The list price was $960,000.

They also had to sell themselves to the seller, who wanted to make sure the new buyer would be a good fit for the neighborhood. When my neighbor — a conscientious soul — showed up to the beauty pageant, there were about 30 others on hand to do the good-neighbor booty shake as well. 

Ultimately, all was for naught. The house sold for $1.3 million, nearly $400,000 above the asking price. The top two bidders included provisions indicating they’d pay a few thou over whatever the top bid was. After exchanging fist bumps and elbow taps, we went our ways, both humming, strangely enough, Elvis Costello’s “All This Useless Beauty.”

Dirt, as we all know, never sleeps. The ground under your feet is always working. And it makes much more money than you ever will. 

That’s Santa Barbara. What goes up never comes down. Or if so, only temporarily. And never for long.

That’s why the governmental entity known as the County of Santa Barbara is doing so well that its reserves — weighing in at $38 million — are practically spilling over, while the governmental entity known as the City of Santa Barbara is looking for widows and orphans to throw overboard. Why the dramatic discrepancy? The county is funded to a much larger extent by property taxes — which are derived from real estate — not to mention a helpful infusion from cannabis, while the city relies more on bed and sales taxes. 

My curiosity piqued, I called a real estate guy I know. How many single-family homes are on the market, I wondered, for a million bucks or less? Between Carpinteria and Gaviota he said, there were three. And six condos. That was a week ago. Things could have changed. But not likely. Between a million and $1.5 million, he said there were 12. And eight condos. Yikes, I said. How’s a person supposed to get a toehold? “It helps if you have a million in the bank,” he said.

No wonder Santa Barbara seems to have more Teslas per square inch than any place on the planet.

Between January and last week, there were 1,200 properties listed. Of those, more than 800 sold. More than half got more than their list price. Most went in less than two weeks. According to my real estate friend, they could have gone even faster, but agents wanted to slow it down.

This Tuesday, The City Council went eyeball to eyeball with how many new housing units the state government says we have to make theoretical room for if we want to be eligible for all kinds of state funding. Every city and county in the State of California goes through this every eight years. 

Countywide, we need to have the zoning in place to allow 24,856 new units to be built. That’s twice as many as the previous eight-year cycle. For the city of Santa Barbara, it’s 8,001 new units. That’s also about twice as many as last time. 

Councilmember Kristen Sneddon wondered if the fact that there was no available land within city limits entered into this equation. No, she was told, it did not. What about building near high-fire zones where housing should not be built? No, she was told, it was not.

The new numbers — technically known as the Regional Housing Needs Allocation or RHNA, for short — are so much bigger because this time they reflect the overcrowding and cost burden that exists in each jurisdiction’s housing market, not to mention the socioeconomic problem of the jobs-housing imbalance.

Guess what? We’re in the purple zone. High rents, overcrowding, and long commutes. 

By law, the council must adopt new RHNA numbers. But in many ways, the council was told, it’s an academic exercise, akin to a skinny guy buying an oversized belt in the off chance he experiences a sudden weight gain. 

The new numbers, more than anything, reflect existing realities, not something looming. “These numbers are already here,” said Councilmember Meagan Harmon, and paying too much to live in housing that’s fundamentally unsafe. Councilmember Michael Jordan was, as usual, his confoundingly contradictory self. “This is certainly not the time to do nothing,” he said. He then added, “To do nothing is to do something.”

It’s worth noting, the city of Santa Barbara has already done a lot. We changed our zoning in many places to allow three times as many units with only half the parking spaces. We embraced the invasion of the granny flats — albeit belatedly and reluctantly. But all that got us was 1,328 new units since 2015, a far cry from the paper goal of 4,100.

And now, we are poised to make more changes that will sacrifice the downtown skyline in hopes of enticing developers to defy gravity and build affordable rental housing on the world’s most expensive land. What any of this really means I don’t pretend to know. It turns out with our existing zoning, we can already accommodate the theoretical new goal of 8,001.

In the meantime, my house-hunting neighbor and his wife splurged on a top-of-the-line tandem bike. It was a consolation prize. Last time I saw them, they were zooming down the Valerio Street Speedway, grinning like fools in love. So much for useless beauty.



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