Blunt, smart, and almost always irascible, downtown commercial landlord Richard Berti is calling City Hall’s bluff when it comes to helping homeless people with a dramatic $450,000 bet.
That’s the money Berti is putting down on the long-vacant St. Mary’s Seminary on Las Canoas Road in Mission Canyon. Berti’s hope is that the property — 55,000 square feet inside and 35 acres outside — could be a place to treat people who are mentally ill and living on the streets.
Berti, who has long made known his frustration with the number of homeless people on State Street, explained he has no interest in the property as an investment but said it offers a real chance to make a serious dent in what’s been an intractable problem.
His down payment puts the property in escrow, preventing it from being sold to anyone else for at least 45 days. In the meantime, Berti is hoping to enlist City Hall to tap into the explosion of state and federal emergency funding that’s been designated to provide shelter for those without. Berti’s associate, Jason Jaeger, a commercial real estate investor, expressed hope that Santa Barbara’s nonprofit community would jump on board to help purchase the former seminary, which is currently listed at $14.5 million. Berti and Jaeger don’t pretend to have a fully integrated plan ready to go; this is more an instance of “if you buy it, they will come” with which they hope to spark a more fully coordinated response.
Berti, who owns properties on the 600 block of State Street, has gotten to know an elderly man whom he sees on the Cota Street sidewalk next to a parking lot. According to Berti, the man sleeps naked on a blanket, under a poncho. “The guy’s educated; he’s a veteran; he’s a smart guy. But he refuses help. Because he’s got ‘free will,’ we’re going to let him rot like a dog. He needs to be cleaned up and be rehabbed.” Berti said St. Mary’s would offer an ideal location where people on the streets with mental health issues can get treatment and help.
The former seminary comes with many existing dorm rooms, a commercial-quality kitchen, a gymnasium with a professional basketball court, and absolutely stunning views. To keep traffic to a minimum, guests would have to be shuttled to the property.
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Berti listed the property in the name of the Santa Barbara Leadership group, a nonprofit organization he founded a few years ago that was run by former Santa Barbara mayor Hal Conklin, who recently died from brain cancer. Since Conklin’s death, Jaeger has taken the helm.
For nearly 50 years, the property was the site of a Catholic seminary with a capacity to house 110 students plus staff. By 2016, however, it had become the site of spiritually minded retreats but not affiliated with any denomination. That’s the year a group of investors hoping to start a detox facility purchased the property. They secured a conditional-use permit for 40 beds, but the deal fell through and the property was foreclosed.
The current owners specialize in financing detox and rehab facilities. To date, Berti and Jaeger have shown the property to councilmembers Oscar Gutierrez, Alejandra Gutierrez, and mayoral candidate Randy Rowse. (Berti has also donated $4,900 to Rowse’s campaign to unseat incumbent Mayor Cathy Murillo.) In addition, Berti showed the property to Gordon Auchincloss, a retired prosecuting attorney who now serves as minister without portfolio on homeless matters for District Attorney Joyce Dudley.
Mayor Murillo has spoken with Berti and expressed a cautious, arms-length interest. “I’m open to exploring the property as a possible location for bridge housing for unsheltered people,” she wrote. Murillo characterized the proposal as “just talk right now,” describing it as “a new proposal that has the interest of some councilmembers and staff.”
County administrator Mona Miyasato said county staff had checked out the property last year as a possible homeless shelter “but felt the location was too far away from services that homeless individuals would need for easy access.” If it could be purposed for other needs, she added, the county would be open to taking another look.
As outspokenly impatient as Berti has been about people living on the streets in Santa Barbara over the years, he was also the chief donor who helped get the Father Virgil Cordano Homeless Day Center — located in a strip mall by Highway 154 and State Street — off the ground a couple of years ago. That day center — run by Franciscans from the Old Mission Santa Barbara and sisters affiliated with the Daughters of Charity — was temporarily shut down by COVID but is back up and operating.
The writer of this article has done freelance writing for Richard Berti.