STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: Community protesters call on Santa Barbara City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez (center poster) to stand on the side of tenants, highlighting those who have historically been in favor of rent control — (from left on green sign) councilmembers Kristen Sneddon, Oscar Gutierrez, and Meagan Harmon — and those who have not — (from left on red sign) Mayor Randy Rowse, and councilmembers Eric Friedman and Mike Jordan. | Credit: Jun Starkey

The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) and other groups centered on tenants’ rights congregated in De la Guerra Plaza Tuesday night to call on the Santa Barbara City Council, and specifically Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, to move forward with the city’s approved rent control ordinance and do more to provide substantial tenant protections in Santa Barbara. 

The “vigil,” as the event was dubbed, and speakers shined a spotlight on Councilmember Gutierrez as the swing vote for rent control and called on her to do more for the people in her district and the city who have historically struggled to keep up with increasing rent costs. “She already forgot all the promises she made to the Eastside, but we didn’t forget,” said David Herrera, campaign leader for the Santa Barbara Tenants Union.

Juanita Colmenares, a physical therapy aide at Goleta Valley Hospital, attended the vigil Tuesday, displaying a sign that translates to: “Alejandra, Support la raza. Support rent control!” | Credit: Jun Starkey

Members of the Poor People’s Campaign, Planned Parenthood, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Tenants Together, and City of Santa Barbara employees also came out in support of the rent cap ordinance, calling out the council and Gutierrez for not recognizing housing as a necessity that impacts every facet of a person’s life. “Affordable housing is preventative health care,” said Kyra Solis, community organizer for Planned Parenthood. “We are invested in making sure all of our communities are healthy.”

A 2 percent rent-control ordinance was approved by the council in December 2021, though Alejandra Gutierrez and fellow councilmembers Eric Friedman and Mike Jordan voted against it. In February 2022, Gutierrez did vote in favor of a $200,000 study to look at the housing crisis in Santa Barbara and see how rent control might play out. Within the next two weeks, the City Council will vote to decide on the scope of the study, which is expected to take several months to complete.

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Frank Rodriguez, the policy advocate for CAUSE, and other residents attending the vigil said this study would not bring forth any new information, only confirm what has been established. “Rent control is something that’s been talked about with lots of data and presentations for years,” Rodriguez said. He also said the study would only further delay the 2 percent ordinance from being fully implemented. “We don’t want to wait another year for protection. Every day this goes on, another family has to leave Santa Barbara.”

In the weeks before the vigil, flyers were posted around the Eastside of Santa Barbara by the Tenants Union, with photos of Gutierrez and text asking her if she will be the “Valiente,” the brave one, or the “Vendida,” the sellout. Rodriguez said the groups have focused on Gutierrez not only because she represents a majority-Latine minority district, but also because she has not outright stated why she is or is not in favor of rent control. “We focus on Alejandra because communities of color, like the Eastside and Westside, need these necessary safety nets,” Rodriguez said. Members of the union and CAUSE said they have tried to connect with Gutierrez to understand what level of rent control she would be in favor of, but each group said their questions haven’t been answered.

A sign on a tent at Tuesday’s vigil at De la Guerra Plaza reads, “Alejandra, Do not keep betraying la raza. Support rent control.” | Credit: Jun Starkey

Gutierrez said she does take the housing crisis seriously, but she refuses to take part in the politically charged conversations surrounding rent control, instead wanting to focus only on data and the impact a rent-control ordinance could have in years to come. “I’m here in the middle saying let’s not play politics,” Gutierrez told the Independent. “I was very clear when the 2 percent vote came up that I’m not going to play politics with this issue because we don’t know how this would play out in our community.” 

She went on to say that personal attacks were not productive to the conversation of creating more affordable housing and that her position as the swing vote is due to her propensity to ask more questions. “If I’m the swing vote, that means I’m asking questions,” she said. “At the end of the day, as a leader, I need to do what’s right for the city and not just one district.”

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