Evidence of Santa Barbara’s extreme housing shortage can be seen everywhere ― fast-climbing rent rates, a median home price that just jumped from $1.5 million to $2 million, and long commutes for those who can’t afford to live where they work. Efforts to address the scarcity also abound ― higher densities, more granny flats, and new state laws meant to expedite development by limiting local control.
While the reasons are complicated and date back decades, the root of the problem is simple. There is just not enough construction of new housing supply to meet current demand. And here on the South Coast, there is perhaps no bigger contributor to the present day housing crunch than our world-renowned university.
That revelation is contained in a searing June 18 letter sent by a coalition of community groups known as SUN, or Sustainable University Now, to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang. SUN accuses UCSB and Yang of breaching a legally binding 2010 Long Range Development Plan in which the university pledged to cap its enrollment at 25,000 students through the year 2025, to build dormitories for the 5,000 students it planned on adding, and to construct 1,800 new units for its growing ranks of faculty and staff.
Since then, SUN says, UCSB has already exceeded its cap, built enough dorms to house only 1,500 new students, and provided a paltry 263 faculty units. A recent estimate suggests more than 14,000 people attending or working at UCSB now live in Isla Vista, Goleta, and elsewhere on the South Coast. As a point of reference, the City of Santa Barbara managed to add only 500 units to its housing stock in the last five years.
“The University’s failure to comply with [our agreement] has resulted in significant and negative impacts on our County,” states the letter, which was written by SUN’s attorney, Marc Chytilo. “It has exacerbated the already dire regional housing crisis, increasing the cost of housing and overcrowded living conditions throughout Santa Barbara County. It has also resulted in excessive amounts of commuting, causing congestion and compromising the quality of life for all residents of the County.”
Chytilo and SUN ― comprised of heavy hitters in Santa Barbara’s citizen watchdog community, including the Citizens Planning Association (CPA), Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST), League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara (LWVSB), and Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN) ― demand that Yang provide them a detailed plan by July 18 for how the university will resolve its housing shortfalls. The threat of litigation, while not explicitly stated, is heavily implied.
In response, UCSB spokesperson Andrea Estrada said this week that “while the University is not in agreement with the assertions contained in the SUN letter, we continue to make progress and are working through the requisite processes. The University remains committed to sustainability and to its ongoing efforts to develop and maintain sustainable practices and initiatives campuswide.”
SUN’s shot across UCSB’s bow, it turns out, was a long time coming. In November 2019, the group had first outlined its concerns, which the university acknowledged were legitimate. The two sides had enjoyed an amicable and productive working relationship dating back to the creation of the 2010 long-range plan, and Executive Vice Chancellor David Marshall said he recognized “the need to identify and communicate our path forward to deliver student, faculty, and staff housing.” But no pathway was ever articulated.
SUN backed off during the pandemic, but when they followed up with Marshall this March ― as restrictions were lifted and UCSB announced students would return to in-person instruction in the fall ― the group felt brushed off. “There are too many variables (vaccines, room capacity, the spread of variants, testing capacity, the COVID status of the County, etc.) to be able to give any definitive answers at this time,” Marshall told them. “Beyond what has been announced and discussed already, I don’t have any new details, but we hope to have more information in the near future.”
SUN found the response “alarmingly vague and unresponsive,” its letter states. “SUN is capable of engaging in an informed and productive dialogue concerning these issues. However it will not consent to further delays and unresponsive communications.”
“They need to be accountable,” said Dick Flacks, a retired UCSB sociology professor and one of the guiding forces behind SBCAN. Flacks said he doesn’t universally condemn the administration for its missteps on housing ― it has abided by most other elements of the 2010 agreement, he explained ― but the problem is a major one that must be examined and solved. “We’ve been very clear,” he said. “We don’t want to go to court. We want redress, not in the form of compensation but in compliance with the plan.”
Questions and concerns from Santa Barbara County government officials date back even further. In October 2018, they had inquired about the status of a long-delayed 540-unit faculty housing project slated for Ocean Road. The university said it was in the midst of selecting a private developer and completing an environmental impact report. A year later, in November 2019, a campus spokesperson made an identical statement to the Daily Nexus student newspaper, and then again to county staff in July 2020. The current status of the project remains unclear.
More recently, government officials also turned up the heat over what they called UCSB’s “ongoing breach” of the 2010 plan, to which the County of Santa Barbara and the City of Goleta are parties. This winter, their attorneys met with lawyers from UCSB to determine if litigation could be avoided with a settlement. The two sides quickly reached an impasse, however, with UCSB’s attorneys arguing that COVID-19 and its fallout have created barriers to any new construction. They have been engaged in mediation ever since.
Looming large over the entire issue is an as-yet unfulfilled promise made by investor-billionaire Charlie Munger in 2016 to build new undergraduate dormitories for the school, which his grandson attended. He pledged $200 million to do so with the caveat that he be allowed to personally draft the designs. His blueprints currently feature suites of eight single bedrooms surrounding large common spaces. Most of the bedrooms, he has said, would be fitted with artificial windows modeled after portholes on Disney cruise ships. Customized lighting would mimic daylight.
Munger, 97, is a longtime business partner of Warren Buffet and has in recent years developed a sideline of sorts financing and constructing unconventional but highly efficient buildings at major universities. In 2013, he put $110 million toward a student housing project at the University of Michigan, which also lacked windows.
During a 2016 interview, Munger told the Independent the new UCSB dorms ― a massive undertaking that could house up to 4,000 students ― might replace and expand on the two-story Anacapa and Santa Cruz dorms near Campus Point. But sources with knowledge of the pending project said it is now more likely that an entirely new structure or structures will be built closer to the Harder Stadium side of campus.
For more than a year now, Yang has promised county officials that approval by the UC Regents is “imminent.” But those same officials ― who have also historically enjoyed a good rapport with the chancellor ― are running out of patience and note that even if the regents green-light the proposal, it still needs to pass muster with the California Coastal Commission. It doesn’t appear UCSB has any new housing plans outside the Munger venture.
“As you can imagine,” said spokesperson Andrea Estrada, “projects of this magnitude are extremely complex, and the University continues to navigate the process.” Representatives of Munger did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Munger declared that his UCSB vision for modern student housing “will be widely regarded as the best in the world,” even if he doesn’t live to see it completed. “Now, I’m not going to try to die early just so that’ll happen,” he said, “but I’m OK with it if it does.”