The Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-1 to spend an additional $1.2 million to continue renting out all 40 rooms in Rose Garden Inn to homeless people. The two-story motel adjoining a popular San Roque strip mall anchored by the Tee Off restaurant and 31 Flavors ice cream parlor will continue, for another 90 days, to be home to those chased out of six downtown encampments. This vote brings the total City Hall expenditure on an intensely managed effort to transition people from the streets to housing to $2.8 million.
The lopsided nature of the vote doesn’t reflect the heartburn experienced by neighborhood residents and the two councilmembers most responsible for pushing the relocation plan — based on fire-safety concerns — in the first place: Eric Friedman and Michael Jordan.
Friedman, who represents the district in which the Rose Garden is located, cast the sole dissenting vote. Open drug use was now a reality in normally staid San Roque. Friedman said he personally had accosted a man casing neighborhood homes, and he referred to a video making the rounds showing a man openly defecating on the median strip.
Friedman and Jordan hatched the original plan as a way to house the displaced persons from the downtown encampments that were fire dangers — as exemplified by May’s Loma Fire. It was managed by City Net, a faith-based homeless outreach nonprofit, and by some measures, Friedman said, the project has been a success.
In May, there had been 18 fires along the railroad tracks and offramps. Since then, there has been only one. In that time, the Rose Garden Inn has housed 58 former encampment residents; of those, only two have secured housing, two have found jobs (four already them), 40 still reside at the hotel, 15 are “document ready,” and nine have housing vouchers. Given Santa Barbara’s rental market, few landlords are enticed by the paltry stipends that federal housing vouchers offer.
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The conundrum before the council was whether to pull the plug and empty out the hotel in the next 15 days or double down. Leading the charge to stay the course was Councilmember Kristen Sneddon. To do otherwise and throw tenants out on the street on such short notice, she argued, “would be inhumane.”
That argument resonated with Mayor Cathy Murillo. “We knew it would be a challenge,” she said. In the meantime, she argued, City Hall needed to focus on helping the neighborhood. With a police force already stretched thin, Councilmember Jordan was dubious. “I don’t have any confidence we’re going to bring much hope into the area,” he said.
While Friedman cast the sole vote against funding the hotel for another three months, he did vote for mitigations, proposing spending $150,000 to increase the monthly rental vouchers so Rose Garden Inn residents could find permanent housing. He also called on the council to draft a sternly worded letter to the District Attorney, the Public Defender, and the court administrators to reinstate a homeless court program.
Other councilmembers argued that the time had come to talk seriously about putting a bond on the ballot to fund homeless housing. Jordan noted with ironic bitterness the success of the campaign to preserve the San Marcos Foothills, saying organizers managed to raise $22 million in three months to save a “vacant land with some grass on it.” That same generosity, he added, was conspicuously absent when human beings were involved.
The final resolution included language calling on the council’s finance committee to explore the bonding option and to study funding options needed to increase the police presence near the motel.
There was much grumbling about getting the county of Santa Barbara to make more of a commitment to help homeless people. No mention was made that the county supervisors had approved that same day plans to spend $28 million out of $86 million in one-time federal emergency funds on homeless services and infrastructure. One project — the Dignity Moves tiny homes development — is slated to offer 34 new housing units this coming January. City Hall is currently seeking guarantees that those units be reserved for the city’s unhoused population, including those residing at the Rose Garden Inn.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated Section 8 payments were limited to $1,500. Those amounts are set annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a tenant generally pays 30 percent of their income and the remainder is paid by the Section 8 administrator, which is the Housing Authority for the City of Santa Barbara within the city. That remainder amount ranges currently from $1,296 for a single room to $4,485 for a five-bedroom home, with variances for utility payments.