Supporters and opponents to a 2 percent rent cap came to Tuesday’s City Council meeting expecting a showdown, with tenant advocates and property owners all providing passionate public comment in a packed City Hall chambers. But instead of a split vote on the scope of work for a proposed $200,000 study exploring how a rent control ordinance would work in Santa Barbara, the council unanimously agreed to abandon the outside consultant altogether and create a “housing crisis task force” to address the rising rents and lack of housing.
“The reality is, it’s only getting worse,” said Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, who suggested the ad hoc committee after hearing hours of testimony during the meeting. Gutierrez represents the Westside district, which recently had to redraw its boundaries after Census data showed Latinos leaving the area since 2010. “We are in a housing crisis, and we have to do something about it.”
The housing crisis task force, he said, would be a way to create “some type of plan or program to deal with our housing crisis,” including a rent cap, rent registry, or voucher program. The committee would also work with community organizations, property owners, and renters to find out what type of rent control, if any, would work for Santa Barbara.
Councilmembers Kristen Sneddon and Meagan Harmon both supported the ad hoc committee — and said they would pass a rent control ordinance today if they could — but disagreed on whether the study should be abandoned.
“I would fully support a task force, but not instead of this study,” Sneddon said. She recommended that they continue with the study, which had already been moved forward twice, and worried that a lack of real data would only delay an ordinance that could help people now. “We are losing members of our Latino community — our Census tells us that, our district boundaries tell us that, and it is rapid,” she said “This is a crisis for long-term generations of people in this community.”
Harmon wanted it to be clear that the ad hoc committee would have a stated goal toward a rent cap ordinance, which the city has been exploring for years. “The residents of this city are counting on us,” she said.
All seven members of the council, including Mayor Randy Rowse, expressed support for tenants, and all agreed that the task force would be a step in the right direction without, as Rowse said, excluding “any one idea.”
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Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez has faced a wave of criticism in recent months — including a “rent control vigil” held last week outside City Hall, where attendees raised signs asking if she was “valiente,” the brave; or “vendida,” a sellout. On Tuesday, members of the Central Coast Alliance for United Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) and the Santa Barbara Tenants Union (SBTU) showed up again to speak on the issue.
Gutierrez addressed the comments and the harassment she said she received as the council’s swing vote on rent control. “I do want to make it very clear that I’ve never been opposed to rent control,” she said. ”I’ve never said that I was against rent control.”
On the pushback she’s received from the community, she said that “harassing or making comments to the one Latina on council is not the way,” and added she has never made decisions based on “emotions or political pressure.”
She finished by addressing the valiente/vendida questions, saying in Spanish that she was brave, because it takes courage to do the right thing even when people will get upset. She supported the committee and recommended that the city work with community leaders and spend money on local organizations instead of hiring outside consultants to avoid a situation like Ortega Park — where it “ended up being the community that educated the consultants” as to the history and the needs of the city.
Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez was selected to chair the housing crisis task force, with councilmembers Alejandra Gutierrez and Sneddon joining the committee. It was passed unanimously, with the ad hoc committee officially tasked with “addressing the city’s housing crisis,” including “further discussion on rent cap and rent registry.”
If the task force suggests a rent control ordinance, it’s still unclear whether the council would have enough votes to move forward. All seven expressed empathy with renters, but several of the councilmembers were still hesitant to support any form of rent control.
“If I thought for a moment that this kind of ordinance going forward would help that situation, I’d be right in there,” Mayor Rowse said, “But i don’t think it does; in fact, i think it has the opposite effect.”